In Indonesia, in the upland below the Island of Sulawesi, there is a population that often has survived in complete isolation from the rest of the world. Although the people of Toraja is of Christian religion nowadays, this long isolation led to an ancient cult of the dead, of animist nature, which was so vividly felt that it is still of maximum importance even nowadays.

For the people dead does not equal end of life but rather the beginning of a journey towards the soul world; the moment in which a person loses its life it is not considered as dead but in a sort of sleep, lingering between two words.

Due to their belief, while in the Western culture the funeral is celebrated within very few days from the death, in the tradition of Toraja it can take months up to many years before getting to the ceremony of the funeral. This because the ritual is widely complex as well as it costs a lot of money and last but not least because the family need to have metabolised the new condition and that they are ready to let it go.

The body gets mummified with formalin and taken into their native home. During this period the mummy is kept inside the house as if it was still alive: all dressed up, their relatives offer it food, cigarettes and when they leave the table they ask for its “permission”.

Once that all its family agrees to detach from its presence and look for the necessary answers, it is possible to proceed to the celebration of the ritual that, according to the social class of the dead, hence the possibilities of its family, can last even beyong a week.

Below: picture by Arian Zwegers shared via Wikipedia Рlicence Creative Commons

During the celebrations many animals are sacrificed, especially buffalos through which the soul will be able to reach the Puya, the Kingdom of the Souls, and pigs, which will need for its sustenance. Much of the meat of the killed animals in this occasion will be offered to friends and family present at the celebration.

Below: picture by Arian Zwegers shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The coffin in which the mummy is placed is built with care and decorated with precious fabrics and goods which once belonged to the dead as well as commonly used things such as alcohol and cigarettes. Once the coffin is closed, it is put in a grotto carved into the rock and, in front of the grotto there is the wooden mannequin with the appearance of the dead, called Tau Tau, which is set towards the village as if it would keep on guarding it and its beloved ones. There is also a peculiar tradition for the children for which the very young ones are inserted inside the trunk of living trees: just one trunk can host up to 10 children and the tree can still survive while safeguarding them.

Below: the village with the Alang, traditional rice granary. Picture by Ansensius shared via Wikipedia Рlicence Creative Commons

According to the belief of the people of Toraja, the spirit of the beloved person will keep on being a benevolent and protective figure for its family, but this just in case the tradition of the ceremony is respected in all its details. Otherwise, in the unlucky hypothesis in which the family does not find the economic resource to afford a respectable burial and funeral rite, the spirit won’t reach the Puya and will turn into a Bombo, an evil spirit which will haunt the village to torment the living.

Below: picture by Michael Gunther shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

In the 80’s the mummies placed onto the rocky walls started being stolen and resold to collectors and museums. For this reason the population has started hiding its dead in increasingly more remote grottos, hard to find, or protected by barbwire. The people from the higher rank bury their dear ones in higher places, hence the height gives an insight on how wealthy the family of a dead is.

Below: picture by Sergey shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The journey of the dead though does not stop here. It remains a constant presence in the community and every year, between July and August, there is the “Ma Nene”, a ceremony for which the coffins are taken back to the village, get reopened, and there the mummies are dressed up with new garments, get their hair restyled, they put the glasses back to the ones who would wear them in life and get offered food, alcohol and cigarettes. For an entire day, the mummies are taken around the village to greet relatives and friends, taking the opportunity to even get some new macabre family pictures.

Rachele Goracci


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