In the south of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, an ethnic group called the Toraja honor ancestors by digging out their corpses every three years.

The sun has not yet risen from the east when I start making my way to Pangala Village. From Rantepao, the main town in the Tana Toraja region of South Sulawesi, I drive through the narrow streets and traverse the hills. The beautiful curved silhouettes of tongkonan, the uniquely boat-shaped Toraja houses, make me forget I haven’t had breakfast yet. Three hours later, once in the village, I will have a cup of coffee with Sulestosai and ask if I can accompany him through the rice fields to the patane, the Torajan tombs.

Tana Toraja, in the south of Indonesia’s Sulawesi island, is home to about half of the country’s Toraja population, an ethnic group indigenous to this mountainous region. Every August, after the harvest and before the planting season, a celebration called Ma’Nene begins here. It is part of one of the most complex funeral rituals in the world, in which family members dig up their loved ones every three years to dress them in new clothes, clean their bodies and repair their coffins.

The Torajan people’s traditional ancestral houses, named tongkonan, have a distinctive boat shape.

Yohanes Tampang lies in front of me. Dressed in black sunglasses, a black suit and a batik headband, he still looks a little rough. He died 15 years ago but has just been dug out his tomb by family members, who will soon start cleaning his corpse. I heard about the Ma’Nene ritual a few years ago but was only able to witness it this year. My interest for Indonesia’s ancient beliefs, from Bali to Sumba to Tana Toraja, has brought me to learn more about my country’s spirituality in a time of rapid social change and urbanization. It has become my long-term project, to document those who still respect their ancestors. As family members gather around the corpse of Yohanes Tampang, I don’t see fear or disgust, just love. They talk with the deceased and introduce him to a new family member.

“We believe dead family members are still with us, even if they died hundreds of years ago” explains Daniel Toding, a villager from Pangala village, after dressing up his deceased grandmother in new clothes. “This is our way of respecting and honoring our ancestors and loved ones.”

The Ma’Nene ritual is celebrated by those who follow Aluk Todolo, an ancient set of beliefs that revolves around an all-encompassing god named Puang Matua, as well as the spirits of ancestors. Their funeral ritual originated from the story of a hunter named Pong Rumasek, whose life prospered after he dressed and buried a corpse he found in the forest. Since then, people in his village, Baruppu, have believed that corpses should be treated with care and respect. That belief spread throughout Tana Toraja.

Torajanese men hold three family members during the Ma’Nene ritual in the village of Pangala.

Until the early 1900s, when Dutch missionaries began arriving, Torajans lived in autonomous villages isolated from the outside world. Less than 70 years later, the region was being branded by tourism agencies as the “second stop after Bali.” With the increased visitor traffic came a number of Indonesian, American, French, and Dutch cultural anthropologists attracted to the elaborate funeral rites in Sulawesi’s Highlands.

Extensive ethnographic studies gave the Toraja a kind of cultural celebrity status, and transformed both their society and the rituals themselves. Aluk Tadolo, however, is not acknowledged by the Indonesia government as an actual religion and therefore not protected as such. Statistics show that over 80% of Torajans have already converted to Christianity and a handful of others to Islam, endangering local customs like Ma’Nene.

In her 2013 book, Michaela Budiman argues that because Aluk Todolo isn’t taught in schools, “there is no one to pass this vast store of knowledge on to.” But Tomena Tandu, a 72-year-old I meet in Pongko Village disagrees. Sat facing ancient grave stones, he is waiting for his family members to arrive. They must all be here to attend the ceremony, he explains, otherwise it has to be postponed. “This is a form of love for our ancestors. Of course, it will continue generation after generation.”

Tarojan men penetrate ancient stone graves called Liang to retrieve corpses.
Two Torajan men carry the newly-dressed corpses of family members.
Members of the Tiranda family cross rice field towards the village of Pangala.
A family cleans the corpses of the deceased.
Betel nuts are used as offerings to the ancestors.
Mummies are dried before they are cleaned and dressed.
The dead are buried with old Indonesian money.
A man dresses up the corpse of a family member.