hole in ground for burial
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
April 15, 2024 ·  5 min read

Ancient ritual sees relatives dig up dead relatives and dress them up

In Western culture, we tend to view death as a very bad thing. Our culture also dictates that once a body is buried, we leave that body alone forever. In fact, many people consider it at the least highly disrespectful to touch or move a buried person, if not something that will bring you extreme misfortune. In Indonesia, however, this is not the case. In fact, on the southwestern part of the island of Sulawesi, they perform a ceremonial ritual where they dig up their dead, clean and dress them up, and put them back. Rather than bring bad luck, it does quite the opposite. This is the ancient Torajan ceremony called Ma’nene.

The Ancient Ma’nene Ritual of the Torajan People of Indonesia

Indonesia is a country made up of many different islands, and therefore many different cultures. Though there are similarities between the cultures and their practices, each one has its own distinct cultural practices, as well. In the southwest part of the island of Sulawesi, the country’s largest island, live the Toraja people. These native people celebrate an ancient ritual called Ma’nene. This is the practice of digging up their dead relatives, cleaning them up, dressing them in new clothes, and then putting them back. In fact, this is just a small part of their large and complex rituals and ceremonies surrounding death. Though it may seem extremely strange, off-putting, or even sacrilegious to many around the world, for the Toraja, it is a way to celebrate their loved ones and bring good luck upon their family. (1)

The Ma’nene Ceremony

The Ma’nene ceremony is not like most traditions surrounding the dead. In fact, it is not like most traditions, period. It is not like Christmas, Easter, or día de los muertos (day of the dead) in Mexico, all which happen on the same day or weekend each year. Rather, it occurs in intervals of three years depending on the family and when their family member passed. It is typically performed every one, two, or three years after a person has passed, depending again on the family’s agreement. (2)

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The ancient ceremony involves exhuming the body, cleaning the corpse, and letting it dry in the sun. Because of their ancient preservation practices, the bodies are remarkably well-preserved, especially in the first Ma’nene ceremony after death. Once the body is dried, they then dress the deceased person in new clothes. Often they will take pictures with the body of their passed-on relative before returning them to their coffin and putting them back in the ground. (3)

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The Toraja Death Process

In Western culture, death and the following funeral is usually something that happens relatively quickly. For those who believe in this, it is generally thought that spiritual passage to some kind of afterlife takes place immediately after death. Our funerals, as well, are held as quickly as possible with some kind of visitation for one or two days, followed by a funeral and reception. Once the body is placed in the ground, that’s it. People may visit the graves of their deceased loved ones, but once the casket is closed that is the last time we lay eyes on that person.

In Toraja culture, death is seen as a process – and it can be a long one. When someone dies, their body is usually kept in the home of their family until the family is prepared to host the funeral. We’re not talking about a day or two, rather, this can be for up to several years. This is because the family is saving up to have a funeral. 

Toraja funerals are very long, extravagant, and social events. This is because the Toraja people believe that a person’s spirit does not pass from this world into the next until the family has hosted their death ceremony. Only after that will the spirit travel to Puya, the land of the afterlife. The most elaborate of ceremonies can last for up to 12 years and involve many animal sacrifices – we’re talking dozens of buffalo and hundreds of pigs. These can cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Naturally, the longer the family waits, the more they can save, and the more extravagant the ceremony can be.

In this culture, death does not also represent an end, per se. The Toraja people believe that their dead ancestors continue on protecting their family long after they have completed their journey to the spirit world. Despite the fact that in reality, most Torajans are Christian today, they still complete the ancient Ma’nene ceremony.

Read: This Clean Alternative To Cremation Involves Freeze-Drying And Then Shattering Your Corpse

The Origins of Ma’nene

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The Torajan people perform this ceremony because they believe that it will bring good luck and a good harvest for the year to come. There is a legend as to why they believe this, however, even most Toraja people will tell you that it is really just folklore. The actual origins of the Ma’nene ceremony are unknown.

The legend is that hundreds of years ago, a local hunter named Pong Rumasek came across an abandoned corpse while hunting in the jungle. He felt sad for that person, recognizing that they died alone and were never found, therefore unable to have a proper death ceremony. Rumasek took care of the body and dressed it in some of his own clothes. From that day forward, the legend says that he was blessed with plentiful harvests and good luck. For this reason, the Toraja people believe that performing Ma’nene will bring about good fortune for their family.

In general, both Toraja death ceremonies and their Ma’nene ceremonies are highly social events with a more celebrational feel rather than being overly sad or somber. The Ma’nene always ends with a beautiful meal shared together.

Tourists are allowed to attend the ceremonies, however, if you do, you are encouraged to be respectful. Observe, and take a few photos if you’d like, but stay quiet and don’t be intrusive. This is important for many Toraja families as a way to honor their loved ones and is an ancient practice, not a gimmicky tourist trap. If you go see it, please don’t treat it like one. Give it and the families the respect that they deserve. (4)

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  1. “In Indonesia, a Blurred Boundry Between The Living and the Dead” NY Times. January 9, 2021.
  2. You look like death warmed up! Indonesian villagers dig up their ancestors every three years and dress them in new clothes in ancient ritual to show ‘love and respect’.” Daily mail. Charlotte Mortlock. September 9, 2016.
  3. Villagers dig up dead relatives and dress them in bizarre ritual.” NY Post. Mark Hodge. January 5, 2018
  4. Why these dead Indonesians are dug up every year.” Observer.