Toraja people of Indonesia: The tribe that digs up their deceased relatives once a year to celebrate their lives

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The Toraja people live on Sulawesi island in Indonesia and have very traditional when it comes to death. While for most of the world, death marks the irreversible separation of one person to his loved ones, Toraja people treat the dead as merely sick.

Indeed, for these people of Indonesia, death is part of a spiritual journey. While Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim country, the people of Tana Toraja are mostly Protestant Christian.

 They deal with dead in a very unique fashion. For this small community a burial does not break any bond.

Once a year, to celebrate their lives, families visit the tombs of deceased relatives and dig up their remains. The corpse is cleaned and dressed in fresh clothes and offered food, water and even cigarettes.

This festival is known as Ma’nene, which translates as ‘The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses,’ and has been held for centuries. It is a celebration inspired by the legend of Pong Rumasek, a hunter who found a corpse under a tree and wrapped the body in cloth and buried it with care. His action brought him good luck and long life.

Thanks to this peculiar custom, death is even central to the economy there. Very often families save for years so they can afford gifts such as a bracelet or a watch, despite grave robbery often reported.

For the Toraja people, a person’s funeral is the most important day of his or her life. Funerals can be so expensive varying from US$50,000 to US$500,000 depending on the cast. Some Torajan feel trapped by this tradition. The events can last a week and the relatives are saddled with the burden of sacrificing hundreds of livestock.

“We need more time to save,” says Mesak, a Torajan belonging to the “noble” class. “The community would not respect us if we did a small funeral. We must sacrifice many buffalo.”

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