Back From The Dead

Babysitting - During the ritual of Ma'Nene (Care of Ancestors), Clara holds her dead sister who she has never seen alive. Arel died in the age of 6 (7 years ago) because of fiever. The child will only receive a name, when the first teeth are showing. Until then, girls are called "Lai" and the boys "Tato". Why Trojans living in the area of Panggala believe in this ritual is because of a story which has been delivered orally from generation to generation. Back in the days, Pong Rumasek roams the hills of Toraja. Heís on the hunt. But instead of a nice catch, he encounters an abandoned corpse lying under a tree. He gently wraps the bones in his clothes and buries it. Just after this happening, he is being blessed with lifelong luck and wealth. The rumor about the lucky hunter started to spread. Ever since the Torajans believe that the spirits would reward them if they care about their ancestors well.

Eternal rest is a lifelong task for the indigenous people of South Sulawesi, who reunite to serve their dead relatives once every few years


Text and Photos Claudio Sieber


Risvan Patale cries for his mummified mummy. But the preservation is intentional. Esther Paseru is considered a toma kula, a deceased person who hasn’t yet been buried, according to the practices of the indigenous people of Indonesia’s mountainous Tana Toraja Regency. From a young age, the members of this community learn to live alongside their dead in a practice known as Aluk To Dolo, or “Way of the Ancestors”, placing food, water and cigarettes near the bodies of late relatives, whom they treat as merely ill.

For Patale’s mother – who died but three days ago from a heart attack – the family makes the Torajan specialty: pork and rice cooked in bamboo, proffered with fresh flowers daily near her withered feet.


Indonesia, Dead Body, Toraja, Ma'nene, Funerary Practices
Risvan Patale weeps over the body of his recently-deceased mother, Esther. She must be offered food on a daily basis, because the family believe her spirit is still present and needs to eat


It may be several months – or even several decades – before her body will be buried, for a funeral in these mountains is quite the spectacle. Involving the slaughter of tens – sometimes up to hundreds – of water buffalo and the hiring of shamans to guide the spirits of the deceased from the village to heaven, one such production can cost wealthy families up to half a million US dollars. While they slowly save up, the bones of the dead continue hanging out around the tongkonan, or ancestral house, with the odour of formalin used to mummify the body neutralised by dried plants and herbs.


Lo'ko Uru, Indonesia, Ma'nene, Funerary Practices, Dead People
Buffalo are slaughtered in a bamboo arena at a funeral in Lo’ko Uru. Some 800 guests will attend the five-day event


Even after burial, Torajan bodies aren’t consigned to the soil. Every few years, their well-preserved bones are taken out of stone graves by relatives for dutiful polishing, then clothed in updated fashions and carefully returned in a ritual known as Ma’nene. Family members hold feasts to honour the departed, sharing stories of their loved ones at mass reunions.

“Cleaning the corpses is basically like cleaning a room,” says Esram Jaya, who returned from a mining job in Laos for the family’s Ma’nene ritual. “It’s a precious event to honour our ancestors and to gather again.”


Indonesia, Ma'nene, Toraja, Dead People, Funerary Practices
During Ma’nene season in Panggala village, Djim Sambara’s family props up his re-dressed corpse next to a photo of him in military uniform


According to archaeologists, Aluk To Dolo practices date back 900 years. One source of this bizarre tradition is a tale passed from generation to generation of Toraja: A man named Pong Rumasek was once hunting in the nearby hills when he encountered an abandoned corpse under a tree. After the kind Rumasek wrapped the skeleton in his own clothes and gave it a proper burial, he was blessed with luck and wealth for the remainder of his days. Since then, villagers believe that spirits reward them for acts of charity toward the dead.


Toraja, Ma'nene, Funerary Practices, Dead Body
Torajan men move a coffin to a new graveyard during Ma’nene


Modern practices, like sending the elderly to retirement homes or outsourcing funeral care, will likely shock a typical Toraja. Yet these villagers are by no means unaffected by modern conventions: They use mobile phones, and their youth go to metropolitan Jakarta for studies. Many are beginning to voice unhappiness that these extravagant funerals saddle them with debt and deprive them of pleasures like buying new motorbikes or going on holidays to nearby diving paradise Raja Ampat.


Ma'nene, Toraja, Indonesia, Dead Bodies, Funerary Practices
Ne Duma Tata, 90, sits next to the bodies of his deceased wife, Ludia Rantebua (far right), and her sister, Maria Rantebua. Ludia passed away
in 2010 at around the age of 70


Says Tato Dena, a Torajan priest: “It’s hard to keep the practices of our ancestors alive, since there are no written records of how to execute them. That there are 7,777 rituals combined doesn’t help.”

Because Aluk To Dolo has never been recognised as an official religion by the Indonesian government, treaties signed in recent decades between Toraja and Christian priests allowing the preaching of the gospel in villages has led most of the population to convert, threatening the continuity of customs like having “weathermen” use their magic powers to keep the skies rain-free for specific funeral hours.


Toraja, Indonesia, Ma'nene, Dead Body, Funerary Practices
Relatives get rid of the insects on the body of Nene Datu, who died 35 years ago


“I intended to hire a weatherman, but my family intervened, saying they prefer praying to Jesus,” says 52-year-old Yohanis at a Toraja funeral for his father in the town of Sereale. “Unfortunately, they are getting too modern for such absurdities.”


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For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 130, 2018


To see more of Sieber’s photographs, visit his page here


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