Selfies, Family Reunions, and Corpses Standing Upright: Inside Toraja's Surprising Relationship With Death
All photos by Iqbal Lubis

Selfies, Family Reunions, and Corpses Standing Upright: Inside Toraja's Surprising Relationship With Death

In Toraja, letting go is the hardest part.

In Toraja, the dead rise, like clockwork, every three years. Like, they literally rise to their feet. The Torajan people have a complex relationship with death. Their funerals are massive, outrageous affairs that peak with the mass slaughter of buffalo so expensive that some families save their entire lives to pay for them. And then, every three years, the indigenous peoples of Toraja remove the mummified remains of their loved ones and clean their corpses in a ritual called Ma'nene.


Watch our documentary about how Toraja's funeral practices are fueling a migrant economy:

This casual relationship with death and dying has created a local culture that, to outsides, might seem a bit strange. Everyone was really happy as they celebrated the ritual right next to the bodies of their dead relatives. Most even take family portraits and selfies with the corpses. I watched as a 13-year-old boy who lost his mother to a heart attack five years ago calmly stroked her skull. I later saw him lingering near the coffin as her body was lowered back inside.

His mother's name was Jenny Rongrean. She was one of 10 bodies removed from her final resting place—a mausoleum called a patane—and cleaned by her family members. The ritual only take a few hours. The corpses are removed from their graves, cleaned and dressed in new clothes, and then reburied in a new grave.

Everyone kicks each other in a ritual called si semba.

Then it's time for a massive feast for everyone involved. All the relatives bring their own food to the party, and it ends with a ritual where everyone kicks each other that's called si semba (it's meant to bring people closer together).

It was a special Ma’nene this year. While the practice has its roots in North Toraja, it's really only done with a regular frequency in a select few communities like Rindingallo, Baruppu, and Kapalla Pitu. But this year, the residents of Pamibak, a small village in Kapalla Pitu, held their own Ma'nene ritual for the first time in 42 years. Here's what I saw:


A pig is butchered to prepare a meal for the ritual.

The family eats after cleaning and reburying the corpses of their relatives.

Two men peer into the tombs built into the side of a limestone cliff in North Toraja. Some people are interred in cliffside tombs like these.

And others are held in mausoleums like these. The Rongrean family prepares 10 bodies to be cleaned and redressed this day.

An open coffin.

The corpses are made to stand for a family portrait.

A young boy strokes his deceased mother's skull.