As we know, all cultures have their own way of celebrating those who have passed away, but in Indonesia, in the province of Tana Toraja, funeral rites are a little “different” from the usual. The Ma’Nene ritual is the festival of ancestor worship. When a person dies, the body is mummified with natural ingredients and buried in rock tombs. The mummification process allows the preservation of the corpse and allows the family to return to exhume it!
The Torajan people proudly display their dead relatives after digging them up and dressing them in new clothes in an ancient ritual that is meant to show respect for their loved ones.
The festival, which has no fixed date, usually takes place towards the end of August, and allows people to revisit their loved ones.
Every three years, the tribe from Sulawesi island exhume their dead, who they wash and dress in fresh clothes and then pose for family photographs. The ritual, which translates as “The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses,” has been going for more than a century.
Here death is understood not as sad or fearful, and the exhumation of mummies is a way to connect with death and, in some way, transcend it.
Dust and debris are removed from the mummies, and then the bodies are dressed again. Significant personal items, like this mummy with glasses, are left in their place.
One of the most important events in the lives of the Torajan people is the funeral and most people save money their entire lives so they can have a respectable burial for themselves or family members.
In some cases the deceased’s funeral is held several weeks or even years after their death so the family have can have time to save up and pay for a respectable funeral.
But the funeral is never the last time their loved one is seen. Whenever a villager dies, their body is wrapped in several layers of cloth to prevent decay.
Many people are afraid to breathe the dust of corpses and wear protective masks:
All photographs in this article were taken by photographer Paul Koudounaris (this is his official website), who specializes in documenting the rites with which people of different cultures face and celebrate death. This festival may seem decidedly macabre, but for the inhabitants of Tana Toraja it is a sincere expression of a love that even death cannot win.
The photographer explains: “For the villagers it is a sign of the love they still share for those who have died, but who are still spiritually present. It is a way of showing them respect by letting them know that they are still active members of the family, and continue to play an important role in the local society“.
Most people in the world would think that the one below is a fearful face, but for the inhabitants of Tana Toraja these are still the faces of their beloved relatives.
In the Torajan belief system, death is not a final step, but just one step in an ongoing spiritual life.
Torajan people believe the spirit of a dead person should always return to their village of origin, a belief which has deterred the major part of villagers from ever leaving their home in case they die while on the journey and their body cannot be back at home.
If a villager dies away from home, family members often venture to the location and carry the body home.
The Ma’Nene festival might seem strange, but it is a way to not demonize death and to assure the dead a role in society even after their departure.