Life among the dead : Indonesian Toraja death rituals

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.

A young man places a lit cigarette in the mouth of his dead relative. It’s surreal to watch a cadaver “smoke”, its mottled leathery face riddled with holes.

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