In a custom that many foreigners find shocking, the Toraja people keep their dead relatives at home, feeding and cuddling their bodies. Then, when they are finally buried, they dig them up once a year for a celebration.
In a mountainous area of Indonesia, the Toraja people mummify the bodies of the deceased and care for their preserved bodies as though they are still living.
The Torajan people believe that after death the soul remains in the house so the dead are treated to food, clothing, water, cigarettes.
Their skin and flesh are preserved from decaying and rotting – which begins within days of death – by a coating of formaldehyde and water. The stench is strong, so the family store dried plants beside the body to mask the odour.
For the community, a well-preserved body brings good fortune so family go to great lengths to ensure those who have died remain in the best possible shape. Torajans learn from a very young age to deal with death and to accept it as part of the journey.
Photographer Claudio Sieber travelled to the region to photograph the rituals of the Toraja people.
Claudio says “in Toraja it is customary to feed the deceased every day and to keep the corpses cozily bedded in a separate room of the home until the family can afford a proper funeral which easily costs 50’000 to 500’000 USD depending on the caste of the family and how may buffalos they have to sacrifice”.
Many people in the village say the delayed burial helps the grieving process.
“My mother died suddenly, so we aren’t ready yet to let her go,” a Torajan woman, Yohana Palangda, told National Geographic.
“I can’t accept burying her too quickly.” Picture: Claudio Sieber
Even after the dead have been buried in a mausoleum or stone grave, it won’t be the last time their relatives will come face-to-face with their body.
In a ritual known as Ma’nene – which means “care for ancestors” and traditionally takes place in August – the dead are brought out from their graves, taken out of their coffins, washed of insects and dirt, given new clothes and brought down to the village.
In this photo, relatives clean Martha Rantelimbong, who passed away two years ago.
“As soon as the traditional coffins are dragged out of the tomb, the relatives put on surgical masks,” explains Claudio. “After the cleaning, it’s time for her to take a rest and sunbathe for a little.” Picture: Claudio Sieber
Friends and family will travel miles to be reunited with their deceased loved ones and enjoy a feast to mark the occasion. It is also a time when younger generations can meet their ancestors for the first time. They will often pose for photographs with the bodies, or take a selfie. Eventually, the dead will be returned to their coffin and relatives will leave them with new gifts – such as watches, glasses or jewellery.
According to Claudio, the ritual comes from a story that has been passed down from generation to generation.
“Back in the day, a hunter named Pong Rumasek roamed the hills of Toraja. He encountered an abandoned corpse lying under a tree. He gently wrapped the bones in his clothes and buried it. Just after this happening, he was blessed with lifelong luck and wealth.
The rumour about the lucky hunter started to spread. Ever since, the Torajans believe the spirits will reward them if they care about their ancestors well.” Picture: Claudio Sieber
According to Claudio “This pictures shows Todeng, who died in 2009. You can see his young relative Sam lighting him a cigarette and changing his glasses while he is enjoying a sunbathe.”
“To the modern world, this intimacy between the living and the dead may seem perverse. In contrast, abandoning the elders, the sheer number of retirement homes and outsourced tomb care would shock the Torajans.”
Picture: Claudio Sieber
In this part of the world, funerals tend to be more of a celebration than a sombre event.
Picture: Claudio Sieber
Families often pose for pictures with the bodies. Picture: Barcroft Media
“In this photo we see Clara holding her dead sister, who she has never seen alive,” explains Claudio.
“Arel died in the age of 6 (7 years ago) because of fever. Picture: Claudio Sieber
“This is the first time four cousins have met their dead relative who passed away 10 years ago because of sickness,” continues Claudio.
“Back then, there were no proper roads in the mountainous area of Toraja, so it was too late to bring this 6-month old baby to the hospital for a checkup.” Picture: Claudio Sieber
It is thought that these Torajan death rites first began in 9 AD.
These days tourists now mingle with locals as the Ma’nene rituals take place.