Tana Toraja Villagers Take Tomb Sweeping to a Morbid Extreme

The Tana Toraja regency on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has an unusual death ritual: Every few years, families reunite to exhume the bodies of their deceased relatives, clean up the inside of their coffins, and sometimes give their ancestors a...

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Sep 29 2014, 12:05pm

A local girl takes a photo with a body displayed inside one of the rock graves. All photos by Marc Ressang

Everyone covered his nose when the family lifted the cover to the casket. A strange stench hit my nostrils, making me quiver. So that’s what a corpse smells like, I thought to myself.

I’d previously traveled to the Indonesian regency of Tana Toraja on the island of Sulawesi on two separate occasions, observing the extravagant funeral ceremonies that the area is renowned for: raucous village block parties that can last for days and that families spend years saving up for. The Torajans don’t consider physical death the end of the line. Instead, death is considered only part of the gradual process toward “Puya,” or the Land of Souls.

Though the Torajans are considered predominantly Christian, they hold on to a large part of their ancestors' animist belief system—especially when it comes to death and dying. It was only at the end of my second trip to Tana Toraja that I heard of a less popularized and much more unusual Torajan death ritual, “tomb sweeping,” taken to a morbid extreme. Depending on the village, every one to five years, families reunite to exhume the bodies of their deceased relatives, clean up the inside of their coffins, and, if the mummified bodies are in solid enough condition, give their ancestors a fresh change of clothes.  

A body is taken out of a rotten coffin and wrapped in a new shroud with new clothing and gifts for the afterlife.

People were proud to explain that they had returned home from all corners of Indonesia to dig up their parents’ bodies. At the ritual, family members and guests moved around curiously, snapping photos of the mummified remains, and taking the occasional corpse selfie, all while trying to suppress their natural gross-out reactions.

The journey from the airport to the ritual grounds entailed a bumpy overnight bus from Makassar, the remote capital of South West Sulawesi, up to Rantepao, the capital of Tana Toraja. After another hour’s drive, northbound into the mountains, I arrived at the burial site of Lo’ko’mata village: a single, monolithic roadside boulder containing at least 30 graves carved deep into the rock face, some of them more than 50 feet off the ground.

The first few days of the ceremony were spent building ladders made out of bamboo from the nearby forest. Afterward, families painstakingly took the bodies from their graves to clean the coffins from the inside out. Sometimes they discarded the rotten coffins entirely, replacing them with a simple cloth wrap around the shriveled body.

Relatives and local villagers huddle around the bodies to make sure they get their photos.

A mummified body is taken out of her coffin, displayed and cleaned up.

A body and coffin are inspected before being cleaned up.

Feeling uneasy as an outsider photographing such an intimate ritual, I was disarmed by how low-key the locals were about the whole process. People casually handed out cigarettes and coffee to anyone attending—I found myself holding both, as two local brothers called me over to photograph them unwrapping their parents’ corpses.

At dawn on the last day of the ritual, the graves were sealed shut and the bamboo scaffolding removed. The locals held a Christian service near the burial site and slaughtered some pigs and water buffalos for lunch. Then, to mark the end of the ritual, the crowd was entertained by a game of Sisemba, a traditional form of kick-fighting.

Bodies from a single family are paraded across town, before being cleaned.



The rock gravesite of Lo’ko’mata

Villagers take down a coffin from one of the rock graves.

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