The Ma’nene Ceremony of the Torajans in South Sulawesi – When Death Is Not the Last Good Bye

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Indonesia

The Ma’nene Ceremony in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, is one of the most peculiar rituals on earth. The Ma’nene Ceremony  takes place once every three years, during which the mummified, dead family members and the live family members meet and reunite.  

The ceremony is also known as the “Walking Dead Ceremony” because many articles that have been published mention that the corpses are paraded around the village, and hence are seen as “walking”.  Folklore also has it that if someone died afar, the corpse is made to “walk” home under a spell. However, my guide is not too happy about the the term “walking dead” as he says that it’s an exaggeration, so I guess it all depends on what you want to believe. 

The ceremony can be haunting for many, calling it “scary”, “creepy” or “shocking”, but ultimately it is fascinating and one of its kind. Expect scary photos of dead bodies ahead so stop reading here if you don’t want to see them. 

I witnessed the ceremony that took place at Village Poki , where Ita and her family live . (Remember to bring a carton of cigarettes as a gift if you have a chance to visit a Ma’nene Ceremony). The ceremony commenced after a Christian prayer, as the Torajans have adopted Christianity into their traditional religion of Aluk Todolo, also know as the Way of the Ancestors. The family members first removed the coffins from the tomb, laid them on the ground, then cleaned up the coffins before opening them.
 

The moment the first coffin was opened, my heart skipped a beat and had a shock of my life when I laid my eyes on a clothed mummy with black face. I was terrified for a few seconds but quickly overcame the fear because everyone around seemed to be at ease and there was even a jovial vibe to the event.

By the time all the coffins were opened, there were about 10-15 corpses lying in the coffins. Ita and her family carefully cut away the old clothes on the bodies, cleansed the bodies, dressed them with new clothes and eventually the bodies were supported on a bamboo stick in a standing position.

I could see that the bodies had various degrees of decomposition, which were determined by things such as the mummification method (traditional herbs vs modern chemical injections), the ventilation and the humidity of the tomb. Some bodies were much more well kept than others. They had yellowish- brown skin that were smooth and intact. The cheeks were sunken but you could almost make out how the person might have looked like if he were still alive. Some were not as well kept and have already decomposed to bones.

As the ceremony moved forward, the jovial vibe was even more evident but still somewhat eerie to me. It was almost like a celebration. Like all of her other relatives , Ita talked and bonded happily with her dead grandparents, holding their dried hands, and hugging them to take a family photo. Visitors to the ceremony, including me, took photos with them too. I must say though, out of the many photos I took , only one turned out with a proper smile while others were forced half-smiles with a scared face. 

Children ran around the corpses, totally fearless. New family members of the household were introduced to the deceased. The family members would talk to the corpses and say “grandpa, grandma, meet your niece”. One relative even lit up a cigarette for grandpa because it was one of his favorite things when he was alive. The event was very much like the gathering of family members that have not seen each other in a long time. In fact, everything was done as if the deceased were still alive because the Torajans believe that death will not do them part. Death is not the last goodbye.  The soul of the dead, also known as “Tomembali Puang”, is eternal and are able to see and feel what the descendants are doing for them and in return, the soul will also bring blessings to the descendants. 

In between the ceremony, I left for a few times , just to go somewhere without any dead bodies in sight to get some fresh air, and to get away from the smell.  My guide Ino looked at me amusingly, perhaps trying to gauge whether I was mentally exhausted. I was a little bit. After all, interacting with dead bodies so closely is almost the unthinkable. It was my first time to do so, and probably the last time too. But to the Torajans, interacting with the corpses is as easy as 123. “They are family. We are not afraid of them”, Ita told me. 

By the end of the ceremony, the bodies with new clothes were wrapped up in blankets and placed back into the coffins, then back into the tomb again.  I left the ceremony with a big exhale. I was glad that I saw the unbelievable Ma’Nene Ceremony and a big pat to myself for not running away. 

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