Indonesia’s Toraja tribe live among the dead

Ethnic group has few qualms living in vicinity of corpses Martha Kande’s family lived with her greying, shrivelled corpse at their home in Indonesia for seven months, as they prepared an elaborate funeral that is central to the Toraja people’s centuries-old death rituals. “We keep the body in a coffin at home,” Meyske Latuihamallo, the 81-year-old woman’s granddaughter, told AFP . “But it’s kept open before they are buried because we see them as sick so they are brought food and drink every day.” Torajans – an ethnic group that numbers about a million people on Sulawesi island – have few qualms when it comes to talking with an embalmed corpse, dressing them up, brushing their hair or even taking pictures with a mummified relative. Traditionally the embalming process involved sour vinegar and tea leaves but these days families usually inject a formaldehyde solution into the corpse. “After a week, there’s no odour anymore”, local tourist guide Lisa Saba Palloan told AFP. It may seem a ghoulish practice to some: living side-by-side with an embalmed body for months — or even years — before paying homage in a ritualistic display of blood and guts. But the Toraja believe that a person is only dead — and their soul freed — after an elaborate funeral known as “Rambu Solo”. Preserve tradition Wild boars howled and blood poured from a sacrificial buffalo’s throat as Kande’s family prepared her mummified body for the afterlife. Following the five-day ceremony, the octogenarian was placed in one of the many burial caves scattered around the mountainous region, where skeletal remains are arranged by social hierarchy. They sit alongside wooden dolls in traditional clothing, representing deceased nobility, while some bodies are kept in coffins that hang from steep cliffs — owing to limited space. “These are the customs of our ancestors,” said Kande’s 72-year-old nephew Johanes Singkali. “We maintain them to preserve these traditions and keep them sacred from outside influences.” Death tourism The Indonesian government is trying to promote Torajan death rituals as part of ambitious plans to boost tourism across the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago. While the Toraja region draws tens of thousands of tourists annually, it is a fraction of the millions who descend on holiday hotspot Bali. Growing Toraja tourism faces several hurdles, although opposition from locals does not appear to be among them. Rather, poor infrastructure and the absence of a major airport in the highland region make travel difficult.

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