Death rituals of Toraja in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia

Torajas bizarre heritage – Ma’Nene – Selfies

Ma’Nene isn’t just about death, it is grand family affairs and an homage to love that goes beyond death. The rituals have nothing to do with madness – It’s the pride of an ethnicity. Although the photos might disturb an observer, it’s important to understand the background. I feel honored to have been part of something so unique, so uncomparable. Therefore, the memories I’ll take with me couldn’t be more diverse. It would be illusory to say that I’m completely capable to understand what I’ve been experiencing within the past days. To the modern world, this intimacy between the living and the dead may seem perverse. In contrast, abandoning the elders, the sheer number of retirement homes and outsourced tomb care including flower pouring service would shock the Torajans.

Feeding dead relatives, sacrificing herds of buffalos to their honors, persistent mummification? While for most of us, already talking about death is a taboo, for the Torajans inhabiting the picturesque mountain setting in South Sulawesi it’s a lifelong task – as death doesn’t really mean a final farewell. Toraja’s view on death is one of the most fascinating cultural heritage which made it to modern times.

The deceased remain for years if not decades in the family house, awaiting the very moment their folk have saved up enough money to throw a tremendous party. In Torajan belief corpses are treated as if sick until their soul will finally find peace after the funeral rites of “Rambu Solo”. Accordingly, I wasn’t surprised to wittnessed dead family members being invited to join lunch, or to have a smoke together with the living. Once being buried, the ancestors will be regularly taken out of their coffins for Ma’Nene – to get a new fancy outfit and a decent bone polish. „It’s basically like cleaning the room“ states a friend casually who just returned from his mining job in Lao to participate in the family affairs. Stereotypically, the Torajans tend to get labeled as old-fashioned or eccentric because of their spiritual beliefs. After all, the ethnicity has modernised, they use mobile phones and go study in metropolitan Jakarta. Leaving out the rites for a moment – they would be quite normal Joes. But admirably, the Torajans seem to have found a way to maintain their exclusive death cult surpassing some nine centuries, despite the increasing influence of world religions and the dashing modernization.

Condemn or admire? To the modern world, this overwhelming intimacy between the living and the dead may seem perverse. In contrast, children who abandon their parents by sending them into retirement homes earliest possible, or outsourced tomb care including flower pouring service would shock most of Torajans. Very few of us might remember, but with the raise of film cameras in beginning of the 19th century, post mortem photography was a big deal in Europe. A momentum which would not last forever, eventually because dead became a more cruel thing to deal with over the years. But back then, it was widespread to jazz up relatives who just passed away to get them properly photographed – Portraits of a deceased sitting in an armchair with its favorite pet, or even family group photos with dead relatives were as usual as going to the church on Sunday. Some creative photographers have even drawn pupils onto dead eyelids to get the impression the person would still be alive. Thus, why is it so easy to watch how dozens of people get killed in action movies, but in real life, we prefer to aware fair distance to death. Nowadays, as soon as we have closed the coffin lid, we move on to more livable tasks. For the Torajans, keeping their deceased at home for a good, extraordinary ceremonial parties and even exhumation is a greater way to honor their beloved ones.

My project includes dozens of emotional, funny and distressing images I was able to take during the 3 weeks of research within Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi (Indonesia). If you’ve just eaten, please wait for a while until you take a look at it. To have a complete overview I also interviewed the head shaman (Tato Dena, who gave an interview for BBC in the 70s) as well as the son of a „Toma Kula” (a sick person), who is storing his dead father in the family house since 11 years. Last but not least I met two local weathermen who claim to be able to control the rain in the area.

Read the full story about the Rambu Solo’ – Funeral, Ma’Nene – Care of Ancestors, Toma Kula’ – The Sick, Tato Dena – The Spirit believer – and To Ma’ Pamanta’ – The Weatherman

References:   Guardian  |  South China Morning Post (Mag) |  HUCK Magazine    |  SZ-Magazin  |  Dailymail  | / Fluter Magazin|  Asian Geographic |