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What the extraordinary funeral rituals of Tana Toraja and Trunyan in Indonesia can teach us about living a better life

By Smriti Daniel for Return Ticket
For his book Memento Mori, author Paul Koundounaris visited sites in Africa, Asia, and South America to document sacred human remains. (Supplied: Paul Koudounaris)

Warning: The following story contains confronting images, which may offend or disturb some readers.

Wayan Juli likes to invite tourists to visit the dead.

"The people of Trunyan actually practice a spiritual custom that you are unable to find in other parts of Bali. It is unique," Bali-based tour guide Juli told ABC RN's Return Ticket.

Around two hours away from the bustling tourist hub of Ubud, the remote village is home to the Bali Mula, the island's original inhabitants.

They practice their own form of Hinduism, one which predates the Hindu Majapahit kingdom that ruled Java for two centuries.

In Indonesia, most Balinese Hindus cremate their dead but Trunyan is unique. (Getty Images)

Trunyan sits on a narrow stretch of land, on the eastern shores of a volcanic crater lake inside the caldera of Mount Batur, an active volcano perched on the infamous Ring of Fire.

Bodies aren't burnt here — that might anger the deity the Bali Mula believe lives inside their volatile neighbour. Instead, corpses are offered up to the elements.

Dozens of moss green skulls are visible piled atop rocks, "almost like artwork", says Juli. He points to bones that lie scattered in the thick undergrowth, some moved by humans, others by animals.

Even in the heart of paradise, there is no looking away from this stark reminder of our mortality.

'I just feel peaceful here'

The cemetery can only be accessed by boat.

At the entrance, under a sign that says "Welcome to Kuburan Terunyan", sits a plate with two bleached skulls, a precursor to the numerous bodies waiting within.

Juli adds that Taru Menyan literally means nice smell; the fragrance from the sacred banyan that towers over the cemetery appears to neutralise any odour.

There are designated cemeteries for people who have died a normal death, for children, and for those who have died by accident or foul play.

Corpses in the "normal" cemetery are placed in 11 bamboo cages and are typically in different stages of decomposition; as the cages fill, the oldest remains are moved, and new ones added.

You'll never find 12 bamboo cages in the Trunyan cemetery — 11 is an auspicious number.   (Supplied: Paul Koudounaris)

"When I first came to this place, I was scared to see the skulls lying there just like a decoration," Juli admits.

Yet, after that initial shock, he found there was something special about this tranquil cemetery.

"I don't feel any fearfulness. I just feel peaceful here."

A new definition of death

It is no surprise that this place drew in Paul Koudounaris, a photographer with a PhD in art history and three books – The Empire of Death, Heavenly Bodies and Memento Mori – under his belt.

Koudounaris has many years of experience documenting sacred human remains as well as photographing buildings and vaults as well as smaller rooms and even wells and containers where human remains are stored.

In places like Trunyan, he sees the boundaries between the dead and the living stretch and blur. The space between is where he goes to grasp what death actually means.

"I finally just understood death as a border between two potential socialised groups, the living and the dead," he explains.

Westerners might struggle to understand locals' attitudes, says Koudounaris but there is little taboo around a natural death. (Supplied: Paul Koudounaris)

In much of the Western world, in which he includes Australia, the United States and most of Europe, Koudounaris sees many "hard", wall-like boundaries. To try to transgress that wall, to interact with the dead, is considered perverse or unnatural.

"The funny thing about that is if you look cross-culturally and if you look historically, it's always been the exact opposite," he says.

"If you look at most cultures in the world still to this day outside the West, if you look at the way Europe used to be, if you look at most ancient cultures, you'll find that they always had a very soft boundary.

A family feeling

This soft boundary is also evident in Tana Toraja, in the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi.

The first time he visited the region in 2016, photojournalist Putu Sayoga took an eight-hour bus ride to the small town of Rantepao, the capital of North Toraja, before switching to a motorbike for the last hour and a half.

Photojournalist Putu Sayoga loves visiting Tana Toraja for the elaborate death traditions, the gorgeous landscape ... and a great cup of coffee. (Supplied: Iqbal Lubis )

He was willing to undertake the arduous journey to witness the ritual known as ma'nene ("care of ancestors"), believed to bring good fortune and bountiful harvests to the community.

He stood by as Odiya Sulu, a 38-year-old woman, spoke to her mother. Elis Sulu had died aged 65, in 2015, but one year later her body was remarkably intact, kept so by preservation rituals practised by her tribe.

Sayoga was seeing Elis long after the elaborate funerals were complete. During ma'nene, families would talk to their deceased, dress them, walk them around the village and even pose smiling for selfies.

The ritual known as ma'nene is believed to bring good fortune and bountiful harvests to the community. (Supplied: Paul Koudounaris)

The oldest corpse Sayoga saw was a person who had died in 1930.

However, before you can get to the ma'nene, a grand funeral needs to be held. Those in Tana Toraja are famously expensive, necessitating the sacrifice of many water buffalo. It can take months and even years for a family to accumulate the cash needed.

In the meantime, bodies are kept in the home and considered "to makula" or merely sick — something Sayoga discovered for himself when he was invited to sleep with a family in the same room as their dead ancestor.

He found the corpses were treated much as if they were alive, receiving offerings of food, water, clothing, and cigarettes.

Cave burial is also practised in Tana Toraja. This 'memorial balcony'  is lined with carved wooden mannequins or tau-tau, which represent the deceased.  (Getty Images)

Posing with skulls

Determined to document it all, Sayoga came away with dozens of pictures.

"They are really open [to visitors]," Sayoga says. He found not only was his camera welcome, he would often be asked to join the family in a round of celebratory drinks after the ritual itself was complete.

Koudounaris has had similar experiences.

"They were actually delighted that outsiders had come to witness something that was important to them," Koudounaris says.

In Trunyan, they may go a step further, encouraging people to handle the skulls and bones in the cemetery.

"They [the locals] have enough tourists come that they know what makes a good picture. They'll be like: 'Oh, hold him up and I'll take your picture with him.'"

Such pictures have often incited outrage and condemnation online, but Koudounaris says the locals' attitude makes complete sense to him.

A healthier relationship with death

Koudounaris had been in Tana Toraja for a week when a local walked up to him and said, "Our grandmother is dead in the hut over there. Would you like to visit her?"

"She had been shot up with formaldehyde, and she was very well-preserved," Koudounaris recalls.

"The interaction was interesting on so many levels: not just the incident itself but also the idea that I was going in to meet her, not to observe her or to see her, but to meet her because really she is still there spiritually with them in a way we just can't comprehend."

Back home in Los Angeles, Koudounaris has begun a new project: roadside funerals for dead animals. He poses their bodies, with flowers, fabrics like silk and voile and jewellery.

"We're kind of shifting gears because we're talking about pets dying, but it's interesting how many people by now, probably thousands of people, have written to me, thanking me for doing that," he says.

They tell him it has helped them deal with the death of their own beloved animals.

"It almost sounds counterintuitive. If anything, we might think that maybe that's going to make it harder, [to have lost your pet and then] to see a dead animal with flowers on the side of the road.

Funerals comfort the living

Koudounaris hasn't spent any time planning his own funeral — he believes those are meant to comfort the living.

"I would say, when it comes to me, let my friends decide whatever they think is best.

"You know, dress me in a suit of armour, put me on a horse and smack it on the a** and send it off into the desert until I fall off. Put me on a ship and just let me go out to sea … whatever they think is best."

Meanwhile, he thinks we could all do with a little more time meditating on death – and it doesn't have to involve an actual corpse.

"It's such a humbling experience," he says.

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Dive Deeper:
Slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh laid to rest
Abu Akleh was fatally shot by Israeli forces while reporting in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli police beat Palestinian mourners at Shireen Abu Akleh funeral
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UN experts condemn Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing: Latest updates
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Slain Al Jazeera journalist to be laid to rest in Jerusalem
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One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Israeli police beat mourners at a slain Al Jazeera journalist's funeral
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Get all your news in one place