For the Toraja people, life very much revolves around death. This indigenous group is famed for its elaborate, sometimes weeks-long funeral rituals, which can often result in financial ruin for the family of the deceased. In fact, many Torajans are said to spend their lives saving for their deaths. Every three years, however, the dead make a rather spectacular reappearance in an August ceremony known as ma’nene, or the ritual of cleaning corpses. During these festivities, the corpses of deceased relatives are exhumed in order to wash them, groom them and dress them in new clothes. For the Toraja, ma’nene is a logical extension of their belief system, aluk todolo, which translates roughly to ‘way of the ancestors’.
It is estimated that the Toraja population currently stands at about 650,000, with many of them living in a cluster of villages in Tana Toraja, a regency of South Sulawesi in Indonesia. Though many have converted to Christianity or Islam, their traditional beliefs remain visible during funerals and related festivities. Characterised by exceedingly strong ties to deceased relatives, aluk todolo dictates that the deceased remain a constant in their families’ lives. After passing away, they are kept in the family’s home, ceremonially fed and dressed until such time that the family can afford the costly funeral – a saving period that can last anything from a few days up to several years. The bodies are finally laid to rest in caskets that, depending on the region, are either inserted into holes dug into cliffs or hung from the cliff faces themselves.
During the ma’nene period, once the returned relatives have been groomed and dressed, they are walked around the village, following a route of straight lines that are connected with Hyang, a spiritual entity that moves only in straight lines. According to the aluk todolo belief system, one’s spirit must return to his or her home village, meaning that, traditionally, the Toraja were wary of travelling in fear of passing away far from home and being unable to return to their village. “We believe dead family members are still with their relatives, even if they died hundreds of years ago,” said Daniel Toding, a villager from Pangala, Tana Toraja. “This is our way of respecting and honouring our ancestors and loved ones.”