All cultures have a way of celebrating the ones who have passed away. It might be funerals, it might be simply telling stories, or it might be the huge holiday we in the U.S. know as Halloween. But few come as close to the dead as the Ma’Nene festival that takes place in the Tana Toraja province of Sulawesi, Indonesia, where people spend quality time with their deceased loved ones — quite literally.
Ma’Nene is a festival of ancestor worship. When a person dies, their body is mummified using natural ingredients and buried in rock graves. This preservation allows for the family to come back and visit each year.
The festival, which has no set date but is usually held in late August, allows people to revisit their loved ones. This woman is having an emotional moment over the casket of her late husband.
But it goes further than just seeing the caskets.
The mummified bodies are removed from their coffins and lovingly tended to. This includes cleaning the bodies, removing their old clothes and giving them new ones.
Some of the bodies are even propped up so the family can gather around them, just as they would when the person was alive.
Looking into the face of death like this isn’t seen as scary or sad, but rather as a way to connect with death — and transcend it.
This mummy is especially heartrending — it’s a baby.
Dust and debris are removed from the body, and then the bodies are dressed. Their personal effects, like this man’s glasses, are kept, as well.
People still respect the possible dangers of breathing in the dust, so many wear masks.
The photos you see here were taken by photographer Paul Koudounaris, who specializes in capturing the way different cultures approach, deal with, and celebrate death. This festival might seem macabre to people from other cultures, but to the people in Tana Toraja, it’s a heartfelt expression of a love that even death can’t conquer. “To the villagers it is sign of the love they still share for those who have passed on but are still present spiritually,” he explains. “It is a way of showing them respect by letting them know that they are still members of the family group, and still hold an important place in local society.”
Many people think looking into a face like this is frightening, but to the people in Tana Toraja, these are still the faces of their beloved relatives.
Ma’Nene might seem strange, maybe even distasteful, to those outside of this culture. But in a society that seeks to get as far away from death as possible, it’s refreshing to see people embrace and celebrate it so readily.
You can see more of Koudounaris’ photography on his website and Facebook page, where you can also learn about the ways people all around the world honor their dead.