Indonesian Village Where The Dead Come Back To Life

This article was originally published on the Sydney Morning Gerald

Death is a relative concept for Indonesia’s Toraja people, who keep their loved ones close to them to the end – and beyond.



Kristina Banne has been dead for almost nine years but her oldest son still tenderly applies her favourite musk-pink face powder.



“All pretty now,” Bartolomeus Bunga murmurs, readjusting the metal-rimmed spectacles on her crumbling nose.

He lifts her mummified corpse out of the coffin and smiles for family portraits. “Nenek (grandmother),” Kristina’s young granddaughter says softly, touching the brightly coloured batik skirt the matriarch has just been changed into.

We are at a mountaintop cemetery in the village of Pangala in North Toraja, a regency of South Sulawesi in Indonesia, witnessing ma’nene, a ritual to pay homage to ancestors, which takes place after the rice harvest in August.

The corpses are removed from their tombs, groomed and dressed in new outfits. They smell mildewy but the odour is not foul. Some wear sunglasses and jeans, others delicately beaded white satin dresses and bejewelled earrings.

“Doing ma’nene is my way of repaying my mother’s love,” he tells us. “I am carrying my mother just like she carried me when I was a baby.”

It may seem strange to the outside world but Torajans are completely at home among the dead. Death is far less definitive here than in other cultures, more a crossing from one place to another than the bitter end.


It is not uncommon for people to remain in their families’ homes for years after they die. Indeed, it is not until the funeral that a person is considered dead. Until then, they are referred to as to’makula – a sick person.

“Toraja people believe the spirit of the dead lives among us, the living, looking out for us, blessing us,”.

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