Why these dead Indonesians are dug up every year
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The Toraja people, who live on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, have a rather unique way of honouring dead family members. As part of a ritual called Ma’nene, they dig them up, clean their bodies, dress them in new clothes, pose for pictures with them and then re-bury them. By showing their dead relatives that they still love and care for them, they hope to be blessed with a good harvest the following year.
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The Toraja people get their name – which means “the people from up there” – from their traditional home, which is a mountainous region in southern Sulawesi, one of the main islands in the Indonesian archipelago. An estimated half a million Toraja people live in the region.
Roughly 80 percent of Torajas are either protestant or Catholic, the enduring legacy of Dutch missionaries. This is a marked difference from the rest of Indonesia, which is 85 percent Muslim.
However, many Torajas blend their Christianity with traditional beliefs and accord great importance to “Aluk To Dolo” (“the way of the ancestors”). One of the most important rituals in this belief system is Ma’nene, which means “do something for the grand-parents”, a ritual most often celebrated in August.
"The Torajas act as if their dead were still alive”Fyant Layuk is Toraja. He has attended Ma’nene ceremonies twice, but he has never participated directly.
First, people open up their family tombs and bring out the coffins of their ancestors. Then, they take out the bodies.
In the town of Pekuburan Balle, South Sulawesi. Photo: Endy Allorante.
Next, they clean the bodies and remove dust and any mould that has grown. If the bodies still have hair left, then they fix it up. [Editor’s note: Some families give their ancestors cigarettes and spritz them with perfume]. They talk to the bodies as if they were still alive.
They also put the bodies out in the sun to help them dry out. This helps to preserve them. Then, they dress them up in new clothes before putting them back in their tombs.
Sometimes, people dig up relatives who died up to 30 years earlier. Their bodies are relatively well preserved.
This practice doesn’t really pose any serious health or sanitation concerns, says Jean-Paul Rocle, who is the head of Funeral Services for the city of Paris: “The people who handle the bodies might be at risk of infection from the germs that have to do with the decomposition of the bodies, but germs tied to diseases aren’t active anymore after all that time,” Rocle told France 24.
“Sometimes, deceased people in the Toraja community aren’t buried until several years after they die”
Layuk told FRANCE 24 about the beliefs behind this ritual.
“It’s not surprising that a lot of the bodies that you see unearthed are well-preserved because preservation of bodies is an important element of Toraja death rituals, whether the family plans to practice Ma’nene or not.
In the Toraja community, funerals are both extremely important and extremely expensive. Like weddings, they can cost millions or even billions of rupiahs [Editor’s note: a billion rupiahs is equal to roughly 68,256 euros]. It can take time for families to save up that kind of money. If they don’t have enough, people just keep the bodies at home with them until they have the money to bury them. So, sometimes, deceased people in the Toraja community aren’t buried for several years after they die.
Traditionally, people have used herbs to preserve the bodies. Nowadays, however, they tend to inject the bodies with a formaldehyde solution even though that actually doesn’t preserve them as well.
“The Toraja people want to show their dead relatives that they love and respect them”
No one really knows the exact origins of the Ma’nene ritual, but people have practiced it for a very long time. Toraja people use this ritual to show their deceased relatives that they love and respect them. They hope that this will please the ancestors, who will bless them with a good harvest the following year. That is why this ritual usually takes place in August, which is just after the harvest and just before the planting for the following year, even though families are free to organise a Ma’nene ceremony whenever they want.
That said, many Torajas don’t perform this ritual anymore or, if they do, they do it every once in awhile but not yearly. With the spread of Christianity in the region, the practice has faded.
According to Fyant Layuk, most Indonesians who aren’t Toraja find the Ma’nene ritual “both terrifying and spectacular, a little bit exotic but in no way disgusting.”
It has become common for tourists to attend these ceremonies. Kittinan Chit-eukul, who hails from Bangkok, Thailand, attended a Ma’nene ritual in August 2016.
“The families waited for the tourists to leave in order to change the clothes on the bodies”
I went to Rindigallo in late August [Editor’s note: Rindigallo is a town in South Sulawesi]. One of the things that struck me was how the families waited for the tourists to leave to change the clothes worn by their dead relatives. They wanted privacy.
I could understand that. There were about 20 tourists who attended the ritual that I saw. They were laughing and talking loudly and taking photos of the bodies. I didn’t think they were respectful at all and I’m sure it bothered the families. The families also took photos, but less than the tourists.