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)
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.
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