- The Torajan people from South Sulawesi, in Indonesia, have a unique relationship with their dead loved ones
- Tribe believe relationships don’t end at death, and often keep relatives in their house for years after they pass
- Even when the bodies have been buried they are exhumed for special events, including this harvest festival
- Deceased, who are preserved with formaldehyde, are dressed up, given cigarettes, and paraded around
An Indonesian village is literally filled with the walking dead as tribesmen dig up the corpses of their loved ones before parading them around in an annual harvest ritual.
The Torajan people from the highlands of South Sulawesi, in Indonesia, have a very close relationship with the dead – sometimes keeping mummified bodies in their homes for weeks or even years before burying them.
But even once the bodies are in the ground they do not stay there for long before being exhumed, pampered with haircuts, new clothes and even cigarettes, and reunited with their living relations.
Marten Labi, of the Torajan tribe from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, gives his mother Yohana Liling a haircut after exhuming her body for the annual harvest festival of Manene. Liling died in 1997, but her family still see her regularly thanks to the tribe’s unusual culture surrounding the dead
During the festival the bodies are given new clothes, offered cigarettes and sometimes food, and then paraded around the village in order to help bring a bountiful harvest. Here two villagers tend to the bodies of their father and mother which have been preserved using a formaldehyde solution
The body of a woman named Rapong, who died in 1990, is carried through the streets of Panggala Village. Torajan people do not view the deceased as dead until they are buried – which can take place weeks, months, or even years after they pass away, and instead keep the bodies at home and treat the person as if they were sick
Even after a Torajan person is buried, their relationship with the living does not stop and they are often exhumed for special occasions, spoken with, and given offerings. Here villagers lift the body of a long-dead man from his casket
Despite the slightly morbid appearance of the ceremonies, the festival is a time of celebration for the Torajan people. Here the relatives of this dead man take a selfie with him to mark the occasion
The body of a Torajan man is displayed next to a portrait showing what he looked like while he was alive. Nobody knows quite how the tribe’s customs started, since they did not have a written language until the early 1900s, but carbon dating of coffin fragments show the culture goes back until at least 800AD
Today the old tribal practices are mixed in with Christian rituals after the religion was brought to the region by Dutch explorers. As the bodies are buried and exhumed, Christian prayers are often said
After the coffins are dug up the bodies are removed and allowed to dry in the sun for a while before they are tended to by their loved ones and then taken to join in with the celebrations
The villagers explain that the festival is their way of honouring their dead loved ones. They tend to the bodies and show them affection, in the hope that they will return the blessing with a good harvest
‘It is our way of respecting the dead. There is no mourning. It is a moment of joy for us because we reunite with our dead relatives,’ one villager said of the ritual.
‘We try to honour them and in return get their blessings for good harvest.’
After the walk, the villagers sacrifice buffaloes and pigs as an offering for the dead’s free walk to heaven.
Nobody knows precisely when or how the Torajan culture around death started, as the tribe only developed a written language some time in the early 1900s, according to National Geographic.
However, recent carbon dating on wooden coffin fragments shows the practice dates back until at least 800AD, and likely even further than that.
The body of a child is exhumed from a grave in South Sulawesi during the Manene ritual. The Torajan view death as another stage of life, and their relationships with the dead continue for years after they pass away
Torajan graves are not the same as in the West – often the coffins are laid in a stone cave or niche carved into a cliff to allow them to be easily removed, and sometimes coffins are suspended from trees by ropes. Here a family exhume the body of their smartly-dressed relative for the Manene festival
Relatives carry the remains of a loved one to be cleaned, groomed and dressed ahead of the annual parade around the village
The spirit during such festivals is one of celebration, with people laughing and joking because they get to spend time with their loved ones again, and believe if they are treated well they will collect a good harvest
The humid Indonesian climate means the bodies usually have to dry out for a while before they can be properly tended to
Torajan culture is a curious mixture of tribal customs and Christian theology after Dutch settlers converted much of the population after ‘discovering’ the area in a quest for spices to trade
Caves are commonly used by Torjan people as a place to store their dead, as it allows them to access the bodies easily for rituals such as this, as well as communicating with them
A villager called Minangga cleans the body of his mother Tumba, who died in 2004 and was buried in her wedding dress
Rituals such as this one are not the only unusual part of Torajan culture around death. Funerals can last for days or even an entire week, depending on the wealth and status of the person, and often involve animal sacrifices
The tribe do not view people as ‘dead’ until after their funeral, which are lavish, can last for days and often take years to save up for.
Until that time the body, which is washed in a formaldehyde solution, is kept in a room in the house and treated as if the person were still alive – but suffering an illness. People talk to the corpse, dress and wash it, and even bring food and cigarettes to the deceased.
Even after the burial, the Torajan retain a deep connection with the dead – keeping the bodies dressed in fine clothes, communicating with them regularly and giving them offerings.
Today the tribal practices are mixed in with modern Christian rituals. The religion was brought to the Toranjan by Dutch explorers in the 1500s, creating an enclave in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.