The Rituals of Toraja: The Walking Corpses of Indonesia

The Walking Corpses of Indonesia

Every society has its own way of dealing with death and the deceased. There are innumerable beliefs about what becomes of our spirit upon our inevitable death, and human beings have a long tradition of funeral practices, ceremonies, and rituals as varied as the many cultures they derive from. No matter what the culture or belief system, in most cases the deceased corpse itself remains dead throughout the practice, 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 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, which are known as tongkonan, but they are even more well known for their elaborate and bizarre funeral rites and burial sites. This macabre fascination with death can be seen everywhere in Toraja villages, from the elaborate burial sites carved directly into craggy cliffs to the traditional tongokonan houses that are immaculately decorated with the horns of buffalos, a symbol of wealth, and used almost exclusively as resting places for the corpses of recently deceased relatives. However, it is in their funeral rites that truly showcase the Toraja culture of death.


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. In poorer families, the body may simply be kept in another room of their own home. Since the Toraja funeral ceremony is typically an extravagant affair requiring all relatives to be present no matter how far away they may be, and bodies are usually entombed within coffins placed within burial caves painstakingly carved into limestone cliffs, weeks or even months can pass between death and burial. This time is required for all arrangements to be made, relatives to be gathered, and for money to be saved in order to pay for the expensive funeral and burial. This is not unusual, nor is it particularly unpleasant for villagers. In Toraja society it is believed that the process of death is a long one, as the soul gradually makes its way to the afterlife, known as Puya; the Land of the Souls.

During this waiting period, the corpse is still treated somewhat as if they are still alive, as the soul is believed to linger nearby awaiting its journey to Puya. The body is dressed, groomed and cleaned regularly, and even offered meals every day, just as if it were still a living member of the family. It is not even unusual for guests to thank the corpse for being a gracious host. When all arrangements have been made and all are present, the funeral ceremony begins.


Depending on the level of wealth the deceased had enjoyed in life, these can be incredibly extravagant, including massive feasts and lasting for days. During the ceremony, hundreds of relatives and extended family gather at ceremonial sites called rante, and express their grief with singing, the playing of music and chanting. A common feature at these events, especially for the wealthy, is the offering of water buffalo and pigs for sacrifice. These buffalo and pigs are thought to be required for the spirit of the deceased when they pass over to the afterlife, and the more animals that are sacrificed, the faster the journey is said to be.

To this end, depending on the wealth of the family, up to tens of buffalo and hundreds of pigs are slaughtered, with the event drawing the fanfare of revelers who dance or attempt to catch the flying blood with bamboo straws. After the animals have been killed, the heads of the buffalo are often lined up on a field to await their dead owner. The spilling of blood upon the earth is thought to be an important component of the soul’s transition to Puya, and in some cases special cockfights known as bulangan londong are held for this purpose, as if the blood of all of those buffalo and pigs was not enough.


When the funeral festivities have ended, the body is ready for burial. Typically the corpse will be placed within a wooden box, after which it will be interred not in the ground but rather in either a specially carved burial cave just for this purpose, a naturally formed cave that fits the requirements, or in the case of babies or small children it will be hung from a cliff with thick ropes until the ropes rot and the coffin falls to the ground, after which it will be reattached.

The reason for placing the dead so high up is that the Toraja believe that they must be placed between Heaven and Earth in order for the spirit to find its way to the afterlife. Within the burial caves are placed all of the tools and equipment the person’s spirit may need in the afterlife, including money (hey, you never know) and oddly piles of cigarettes (hey, it’s a hard habit to break), as well as rows of life-sized wooden effigies of the deceased which are meant to watch over them, and are referred to as Tau Tau. Burial caves may have only one coffin and be elaborate mausoleums decked out in elaborate decorations for the rich, or may be packed with the numerous coffins of a whole family. Some of these graves are over 1,000 years old, with the coffins completely rotted away and nothing but bones and skulls remaining.


However, this is not the last anyone will see of the bodies, for it is after the actual burial that the Toraja enact perhaps their most unusual ritual concerning the dead. Once a year, in August, villagers return to the burial caves in order to remove the bodies and change their clothes, groom them, and bathe them, as well as repair as much as possible any damage the coffins may have incurred.

This ritual is known as Ma’nene, or “The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses,” and is performed on the deceased no matter how long they have been dead or what age they may have been. Some of the corpses have been in the caves so long that they have been mummified. After the corpses are freshened up, villagers will hold the them upright and “walk” them from the village to their place of death and back again, after which the body is placed back in its coffin and returned to its cave until the following year, when the whole morbid process will be repeated.


Although this all may seem rather macabre and bizarre, some remote areas still allegedly practice an even older, even weirder ceremony in which the dead are said to literally walk on their own. 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 interred 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. This all posed some challenges in the past, as before the 20th century and subsequent colonization by the Dutch, the Toraja lived in remote, autonomous villages that were completely isolated from each other and the outside world, with no roads connecting them. When a villager died far from his birthplace, it was difficult for family to retrieve the body and carry it back through rugged, mountainous terrain to its place of origin. The solution to this problem was unique to say the least.


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 allegedly had 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 in the most rudimentary sense.

These walking corpses were said to be largely unaware of their surroundings and non responsive, expressionless, and uncoordinated, only able to perform the most basic tasks such as walking. Upon being brought back to life, the walking corpse was said to shamble stiffly and robotically towards its village of birth, often guided by the shaman or a procession of family members, but sometimes on its own. Special runners would move out ahead of the group to warn others that a walking corpse was passing through. The walk back to the village was meant to be a completely silent, somber affair, and it is said that if anyone addressed the corpse directly by name it would immediately collapse and lose whatever power animates it. It is not clear whether a bullet to the head would accomplish the same effect, but I must assume it would.


Now before anyone reading this panics and starts preparing for an inevitable zombie outbreak, it is important to note that the process is only temporary and the effects only last until the corpse reaches its birthplace, although depending on the distances involved this can take days or even weeks. No word on what happens if a villager dies overseas. Throughout this time, the “zombie” is not a snarling creature that attacks the living but rather is totally passive, showing no interest in or recognition of those around it. Once the walking dead reaches its home village, it reverts back to being a mere corpse to await its funeral in the normal manner of being bathed, offered meals, and redressed every day. In some traditions, the body will be reanimated once more in order to make its way to the coffin in which it will be buried.

Shamans who could raise the dead did not restrict their dark practices to only human beings. It is said that at some funeral ceremonies magic would be cast upon 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, grimace, or cry out. The same thing was sometimes said to be done to slaughtered pigs and chickens too. Often the purpose of this gruesome display was so that the shaman could demonstrate his powers in a public display before being called upon to raise a human being.


Nowadays, with plenty of roads and ample access to transportation, the purported walking dead ritual is largely seen as unnecessary and so in modern times, the practice of bringing the dead to life to walk has declined and is rare to find in Toraja society.  Indeed, many of the younger generation do not believe in such stories at all. However, some remote villages still allegedly practice it. One isolated village by the name of Mamasa is particularly known for its practice of this macabre rite, and there are occasional reports of people sighting these zombies ambling through the wilderness or amongst a procession of family members. In recent years, photos of these alleged zombies have sometimes made the rounds and stirred up debate and controversy. Although the corpses in these photos certainly look real, they are often dismissed as nothing more than a hoax or are perhaps people suffering from some disfiguring disease such as leprosy, that merely gives the illusion of death.

Is any of this real or is it all mere folklore and trickery? Do the Toraja really have the power to temporarily raise the dead and make them walk? Whatever the case may be, there is certainly a strong tradition of doing so in South Sulawesi, and some of the villagers here certainly seem to think it is very real. At any rate, it is undoubtedly a creepy tradition in this fascinating society that has taken death and funerals to a whole new level.