The Walking Corpses Of Toraja
Death is our ultimate denominator -our inevitable truth, but how we cope with it varies from community to community. Every society has its own way of dealing with death and the deceased. There are countless beliefs about what becomes of our spirit upon our inescapable death, and human beings have a long tradition of funeral practices, ceremonies, and rituals as varied as the many cultures they derive from.
Whatever the culture or belief system, some faiths cremate their dead, while others bury them, but in one society in Indonesia this is not the case. For in the Toraja culture the term “Walking Dead” is not a metaphorical term but rather very literal indeed. The Toraja have a strong belief in the afterlife, and the process from death to burial is a long one. When a person dies, the corpse is typically washed and kept in the tongokonan while it awaits its funeral and subsequent burial.
The Toraja are an ethnic group of people indigenous to the mountains of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. The Toraja people are renowned for their wood carvings and their peculiar traditional, ancestral houses with huge, peaked roofs that sweep up like a boat, but they are even better known for their elaborate and bizarre funeral rites and burial sites. Once a year in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, the indigenous Toraja perform a ceremony for their dead called Ma’Nene or the Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses.
During this period many families climb the cliffs and enter the caves of the nearby countryside, in order to collect the corpse of their dead relatives (the Toraja believes that the body and spirit should be placed between the heavens and earth, hence the burial at height) to bathe, groom and redress as well as repair as much as possible any damage the coffins may have incurred. The mummified corpse is then marched through the village, standing upright, and taken back to its place of rest after the corpses are freshened up, again the whole morbid process will be repeated the following year.
In order to make sure the corpse was able to be returned to their village of birth and spare the family the hardship of carrying it themselves, special shamans were sought out who have the power to temporarily bring the dead back to life. The particular brand of black magic used by the shamans only brought the dead back to life. These walking corpses were said to be largely unaware of their surroundings and nonresponsive, expressionless, and uncoordinated, only able to perform the most basic errands such as walking.
Shamans could also raise the carcasses of the animals slaughtered for sacrifice, and there are stories of the shamans bringing the bodies of headless buffaloes to life in order to walk about, or to make the decapitated heads move, look around, scowl, or cry out. One thing common to all of the funeral ceremonies and rites of the Toraja is that in order for the spirit to be able to pass into the afterlife certain conditions must be met. First, all of the relatives and extended family of the deceased must be present for the funeral.
Second, the deceased must be buried in the village of their birth. If these conditions are not met, it is said that the soul will forever linger around its body in a state of limbo, and unable to journey to Puya until they are, a belief that in the old days of stark remoteness dissuaded most from travelling too far from their village lest they be trapped and tethered to their dead body in some faraway place.