Zombie Research Society Exclusive
The real-life story of the “walking dead” of Tana Toraja, Regency of South Sulawesi Island, Indonesia began with some misinformation regarding a photo that had been circulating around the internet for quite some time (to the left).
The photo was described as a “Rolang” – which literally means “the corpse who stands up.” It was suggested that it was a photo taken of a funeral ritual in which the body of a dead person was mystically revived (by a shaman), so that they may walk on their own steam, back to their place of birth, and be “buried” there.
Additionally, information included that the walking corpse was also accompanied by a handler who would generally use specific paths where there would be little traffic. These paths were generally more or less straight– and the walking corpse would walk purposefully on his or her course. Should he or she and the handler encounter another person on their way, the person was to make no effort to touch or communicate with the deceased. Should that occur, the body was said to collapse (or disappear).
All of this, of course sounds pretty incredible, and once again, from any scientific point of view, pretty unbelievable. As it turns out, I was able to uncover the truth behind this belief. My investigation uncovered another funeral ritual performed on the dead by the Toraja people that makes a lot more sense, and I have also managed to track down a video of this ritual (below).
When the people of Tana Toraja die, they are often placed in boxes which are then placed in tombs carved out of solid rock, high up on limestone cliffs. So they are, in fact, generally not buried in the ground. This is what makes the following ceremony possible. The ceremony is called Ma ‘Nene’ (The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses). Out of tremendous respect for their dead and afterlife, the boxes are removed from the tombs (every few years), the corpses are removed from the boxes, and are cleaned and re-dressed. Damaged boxes are fixed or replaced.
It is without a doubt that it is this ceremony that is depicted in the photo above, and in the following video.
Note, the video appears to have been shot by someone who has never used a video camera (or cell phone camera). It swings around wildly at times, and was in fact sideways (as if the person was holding the video camera/phone on its side the whole time). I have rotated the video, so you won’t get a nasty kink in your neck while watching. You might want to take some motion sickness pills though. Nevertheless, this is 5 minutes of this very unusual ceremony!
(Article continues after video)
But what is additionally fascinating is how this ritual came about, why this is still so widely believed and performed, and how it has migrated half way around the globe.
In Toraja society, death rituals (funerals) are more important than life rituals (births and marriages). So the funeral ritual is a more elaborate and expensive event than even a marriage. The richer and more powerful the individual, the more expensive the funeral. And in this animism belief system, only nobles have the inherent right to have an extensive death feast (which can include the ritual slaughter of many buffaloes).
Animism is the worldview that natural physical entities—including animals, plants, and often even inanimate objects or phenomena—possess a spiritual essence. Many animistic cultures (including that of the Toraja people) observe some form of ancestor reverence. Whether they see the ancestors as living in an other world, or embodied in the natural features of this world, animists often believe that offerings and prayers to and for the dead are an important facet of maintaining harmony with the world of the spirits.
As this ritual is so important, it can take, in some cases, months or even years for the family to save enough funds to pay for the elaborate ritual. So the deceased are wrapped in cloth and preserved (in their “sleeping stage”), usually using formalin (essentially formaldehyde)– though a variation of leaves was used historically.
When the dead are eventually laid to rest, they are placed in a cave or in a carved stone grave, or hung on a cliff or mountain/hill. Why a cliff? According to their beliefs, it is because that is where the Hyang is found (more on the Hyang below). Suffice it to say, it is a powerful supernatural spirit.
This brings us to the spiritual connection of the “walking dead.”
First, let me preface this by saying that I in no way believe that there are corpses walking between villages and towns in Tana Toraja. Sorry– that might disappoint some people, but ZRS is not a sensationalist organization– we do aim to investigate and educate. I do believe that the “walking dead of Tana Toraja” is a melding of two traditions or rituals. It’s easy to see how this could happen when a few language and cultural barriers are crossed.
The actual transportation of the deceased between villages, etc, along what can be described as “corpse roads” (in English tradition — also explained further down) to their places of birth (as is Tana Toraja tradition) was likely engulfed in spirituality and superstition. I can not imagine it would make sense to carry the dead upright (as if they were standing) and made to appear to walk. Horizontal transportation makes the most sense. I could see that touching the dead could cause consternation for the superstitious people though.
The actual “walking” part of the dead appears to happen during the ritual of Ma ‘Nene’ (The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses). As mentioned earlier, the boxes containing the dead are removed from the tombs (every few years), the corpses are removed from the boxes, and are cleaned and re-dressed. Damaged boxes are fixed or replaced. In videos I have seen (including the one in this article), the dead seem to be exhibited and paraded around, as if they they were alive.
I have recently discovered that this same tradition is also practiced in places like Madagascar, where the viral disease of the bubonic plague is still highly present. (The bubonic plague is better known as the “Black Plague or Death” of the 14th century that killed as many as 200 million people. Thought to be eradicated, it is still prevalent in many places in the world (including parts of the US)). It is believed that the fleas and viruses (on rats) that carry the disease can continue to live on the corpse for several years, and when the body is exhumed for cleaning, etc, the virus is transferred to those of the living. This, of course, can pose a real danger in introducing the world to the epidemic once again.
Hyang is an unseen spiritual entity that has supernatural power in ancient Indonesian mythology. This spirit can be either divine or ancestral. In modern Indonesia this term tends to be associated with gods, devata, or God.
Hyangs are believed to inhabit high places, such as mountains, hills, and volcanoes. These mountainous regions are considered as sacred realm, as the abode of gods and the resting place for the soul of the ancestors. This could easily account for the Toraja ritual of placing the dead bodies high on cliffs and hills.
Hyang are said to only move in straight lines. Accordingly, for example, traditional Balinese buildings have a wall called an aling-aling just inside the doorway, which keeps the spirits out because they only move in straight lines, and hence would “bounce” off the wall. Similar beliefs are found in other spiritual traditions, as in British corpse roads.
British Corpse Roads
Corpse roads provided a practical means for transporting corpses, often from remote communities, to cemeteries that had burial rights, such as parish churches. In Britain, such routes can also be known by a number of other names: bier road, burial road, coffin road, coffin line, lyke or lych way, funeral road, procession way, corpse way,etc. Such “church-ways” have developed a great deal of associated folklore regarding wraiths, spirits, revenants, ghosts, etc.
These roads’ purpose was much like those used in Tana Toraja– but for slightly different reasons. Differing Catholic ministers instituted corpse roads connecting outlying locations and their mother churches (at the heart of parishes) that alone held burial rights. For some parishioners, this decision meant that corpses had to be transported long distances, sometimes through difficult terrain. Usually a corpse had to be carried unless the departed was a wealthy individual, and then a more automated means of transportation was used (horse and carriage, for example).
The essence of deep-rooted spirit lore is that supposed spirits of one kind or another – spirits of the dead, phantasms of the living, wraiths, move through the physical landscape along special routes. In their ideal, pristine form, at least, such routes are conceived of as being straight, having something in common with ley lines. By the same token, convoluted or non-linear features hinder spirit movement i.e. labyrinths and mazes.
Interestingly, many of these Corpse Roads/Church-way paths are now major roads in England.
By the way, ley lines are straight hypothetical lines that some believe connect magnet fields and or energy to a complex grid, and have been used by everything from the Egyptians and Druids to align structures and roads, to nature itself.
Spirits or ghosts were said to fly along on a direct course close to the ground, so a straight line connecting two places was kept clear of fences, walls, and buildings to avoid obstructing the flitting specters. The paths would run in a straight line over mountains and valleys and through marshes. In towns, they would pass the houses closely or go right through them. The paths ended or originated at a cemetery; therefore, such a path or road was believed to have the same characteristics as a cemetery, where spirits of the deceased thrive.
The corpse roads were left unploughed and it was considered very bad luck if for any reason a different route had to be taken.
So, aside from creating winding road that would keep the spirits and dead from coming back, other minor ritualistic means of preventing the return of the dead included ensuring that the route the corpse took to burial would take it over bridges or stepping stones across running water which spirits could not cross. The living took pains to prevent the dead from wandering the land as lost souls or animated corpses, for the belief in revenants was widespread in mediæval Europe. Another widespread custom, for example, were that the feet of the corpse be kept pointing away from the family home on its journey to the cemetery.
Here’s a nice “zombie-esque” reference: In Ireland, the féar gortach (“hungry grass”/”violent hunger”) is said to grow at a place where an unenclosed corpse was laid on its way to burial. This is thought to be a permanent effect and anyone who stands on such grass is said to develop insatiable hunger. One such place is in Ballinamore and was so notorious that the woman of the nearby house kept a supply of food on hand for victims.
A corpse candle or light is a disembodied flame or ball of light, often blue, that is seen to travel just above the ground on the route from the cemetery to the dying person’s house and back again, and is particularly associated with Wales. A corpse fire is very similar, as the name comes from lights appearing specifically within graveyards where it was believed the lights were an omen of death or coming tragedy and would mark the route of a future funeral, from the victim’s house to the graveyard, where it would vanish into the ground at the site of the burial. The appearance was often said to be on the night before a death. Other names for this phenomenon are will-o’-the-wisps, Jack O’ Lantern, St. Elmo’s Fire. Natural explanations have been hypothesized for this phenomenon, including ball lightning, swamp gas, and even barn owls.
By the way, Corpse roads or paths have been found all over the world, not just in Britain and Tana Toraja. They have also been found in places like Costa Rica, Sweden, and China.
Some of the rituals in Tana Toraja do not seem so isolated. There appears to be an interesting coincidence (or spreading) of phenomena and/or beliefs that go beyond that country. Straight lines of energy and spirituality seem to play an interesting role in many early Western societies’ belief systems, especially where the the dead and deceased are concerned. The ritualistic burying and exhuming, celebration and then re-burying seems to be a tradition that flies in the face of the fear of dying or death. There are no walking dead wandering through the jungles of Tana Toraja, but the traditions are very real, and still celebrated. To these people, their ancestors never die. Death is something they do not fear. Maybe that’s something Western Society could learn from. I don’t think it’s a good idea to dig up grandma every year or two and change her into a new night gown, but there is something deeper at work here.
Or not. We could just be cynical and chalk it up to tourism.