In the region of Toraja in South Sulawesi—a province in Indonesia—lives the tradition of Ma’nene, or The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses. During the ritual, 100-year-old corpses are dug up, cleaned off, re-clothed and sent out to hit the town. Of course they need a little help from the town folk, who walk them around town like life-sized puppets. At the end of the ceremony, the dead are put back into their coffins, which have been fixed up or replaced entirely depending on their condition.
The ceremony is modeled after the ancient Torajan belief that dictates the spirit of the dead must be returned to its home village. In the past, people were even afraid to travel too far from home out of fear that they would accidentally die outside of their village. Now, the ritual is performed merely out of respect for the dead to prove that although they are deceased, they have not been forgotten.
Although this tradition seems admittedly strange, I’m sure that to the people of Toraja our neglected connection with the past seems both odd and discourteous. Besides, everyone has their own comfort level with the dead. Even in North America, tens of thousands of people are cleaning and clothing dead bodies every day—we call them morticians. An autopsy technician takes it a step further, and cuts the dead right open like a cantaloupe to inject them with embalming fluid.
The traditions of handling the deceased vary greatly across cultures and religions. For example, a Christian funeral will typically include a viewing, giving the family one last goodbye to the dear departed. Alternatively, a Jewish funeral is always closed-casket in the belief that the last memory of the deceased should be a time when their bodies were still flowing with life.
So let’s not come to a case of ethnocentrism here. To the man in the picture—combing the dead woman’s luscious grey locks—it’s pretty normal. In another picture, the look on the boy’s face as he puts the rotting dead corpse into the casket seems to say, “Great great great grandfather-Michael, I’m so glad you could make it to this year’s Ma’nene!”
So before you kick the can, be sure to ask yourself, “Do I want my corpse to be unearthed, given a makeover and paraded around town?” If the answer is yes, maybe you should start looking into a Torajan burial. Think about it: how many chances do you get to attend a party 100 years in the future? Pro tip: ask to be buried with a fifth of whisky—soon to be aged—and bring some sophistication to next century’s Ma’nene.