GIFTS IN LIFE & DEATH – Exhibition of Lindsay Schenk

Photography exhibition of Lindsay Schenk, 7-11 October 2017 at Jam.

Whilst spending time with the local Toraja and Tengger communities in Indonesia, Lindsay Schenk documents their traditional rituals.



Age-old traditions that may initially astonish the outsider become meaningful and moving when explored below the surface and with an open mind. Practiced nowhere else in the world, a small community in Sulawesi, Indonesia, conducts the ceremony of Ma’Nene, finding comfort in mummies, once every three years. In a different tradition, on the nearby island of Java, only ethnic Hindu Tengger people perform the sacrificial rituals of Yadnya Kasada to active volcano Mt. Bromo. Remarkably, these ceremonies continue today, despite both historic and current encroachment of other religions.

Gifts in life and death make up essential components of these ceremonies.

For Ma’Nene, a small community in Toraja bring forth their ancestors from the grave, honoring their memories and souls while gently cleaning the mummified bodies and dressing them in lovely new clothes, adding practical gifts to take back with them, such as sunglasses and purses. In return, the living descendants feel a renewed connection with their deceased relatives, as well as receive future gifts of good fortune and assistance from that other world.

At Mt. Bromo, the Volcano Gods long ago granted the previously childless Queen Roro Anteg 25 children, in exchange for the sacrifice of her youngest child. Today, the Tengger Hindu people carry on the tradition, throwing (non-human) offerings into the crater of Mt. Bromo in exchange for good fortune granted by the Gods – and to avoid disaster. Yet, many of the offerings turn into gifts of sustenance for the non-believers who wait patiently inside the steep volcanic crater, fighting gravity and certain death should they stumble and slide into the smoke-spewing depths, in order to catch the offerings to the Volcano Gods.

Chronicling each ceremony over several days, the photography exhibit conveys complex emotions; seemingly contradictory components that harmonize; and families and communities coming together.

The exhibit came about while spending time with local families, often sharing food and drink, and managing to communicate despite some language barriers. And, at Mt. Bromo, included the additional element of sacrificing sleep for 36 hours while breathing in thick volcanic ash through an ineffective, but colorful cartoon painted surgical mask.

photography by Graham Meyer

In 2015, Lindsay traveled through many regions of Asia and immersed herself in culturally rich, isolated rural communities. With infinite kindness, the people opened their doors, inviting her into their daily lives as well as their traditions. Lindsay captured these experiences through photography in hopes of bringing them alive for others.

Lindsay currently lives in Bangkok and works in international human rights law at a non-governmental organisation.



A simultaneously joyful and mournful air prevails as Toraja families open graves and disinter the mummified bodies of their deceased loved ones for cleaning, changing clothes and, of course, posing for family photographs. Tana Toraja, in Sulawesi, Indonesia, is known for elaborate funerals. The Toraja ritual of Ma’Nene, however, has largely escaped notice. And it is dying out (pun intended). Few Toraja villages still practice Ma’Nene in the traditional form, instead of cleaning puppets – Tau Tau – which represent the dead. The people of Loco Lemo, a small village deep in Toraja land, still celebrate the traditional form of Ma’Nene once every three years.

Ma’Nene is an emotionally charged ceremony that overwhelms the senses. In Loco Lemo, a cluster of graves – sheds constructed with brick, cement and wood – lines a steep dirt road rising out of a narrow valley. Set against a backdrop of brilliant green rice terraces checkering a neighboring hill, the scene is picturesque. On day one of Ma’Nene, the locals open the graves for airing out while they clean the interior and exterior, re-painting or making other repairs. On day two, they remove generations of their deceased family members. Some corpses lie in coffins. Others are simply wrapped in layers of multi-colored fabric thick enough to disguise the shape of the body.

Anguished, almost musical, wailing resonates as coffins are opened and fabric unraveled to reveal mummified corpses. Joking and laughter clash with the sobbing. In varied states of decomposition or preservation, male corpses sport their ‘Sunday best’ – in suits and ties – with eyeglasses or, comically, sunglasses. Possessions they valued while living in this world surround them. Female corpses wear skirts and shirts or dresses with jewelry and purses. Dust from inside the coffins and the somewhat moldy fabric in which the corpses were ensconced fills the air as more and more corpses are set out to dry. Before long, the flat space outside and on top of the graves is transformed into a maze of colorfully bundled corpses (piled on top of one another), intricately carved wooden coffins and mummified bodies on display. Small fires burn the material and old clothes removed from the corpses.

Family members unbutton the mummies’ shirts and pants or cut away clothing. They tenderly explore the bodies and faces with bare hands, feeling for weak spots to ensure that the flesh will not crumble when handled. Teeth, fingernails and toenails remain partially intact. Baldness does not seem to be a problem among this crowd as many mummies have managed to keep their hair. Wrinkled skin and flesh in shades of brown, gray, pink and patches of black stretch over rib cages, across femurs, kneecaps and beyond.

One corpse’s head has decomposed into dirt, somehow maintaining its original shape with eyeglasses still in place. It looks like it might disintegrate at any moment. A family member gingerly taps a newly revealed mummy’s eye sockets – which fortunately turn out to be solid – while another person playfully tousles the same mummy’s gray hair.

Amidst laughter and tears, family members clean the dust from the mummies using paintbrushes, toothbrushes, dried rice stalks and scraps of material. The air grows even thicker with the dust. Today, most Toraja preserve the bodies of their deceased by injecting formalin. In the past they used natural ingredients, such as a mixture of tea and hand soap, for mummification. To this day, they leave the organs inside the body.

A married couple, just after unveiling a deceased father, uncovers the corpse of their child who passed four years previously at age eight. Over time, the child’s face has twisted into a distorted expression, causing an involuntary wince in irrational fear upon first sight, followed by a wave of sadness at the heartbreakingly tragic situation. These parents perform the ritual in a business-like manner.

Sixty-four year old Deborah (Toraja usually have a traditional and a Christian name) uncovers her grandmother, Po’nmobuah, with the help of family members. As we look upon her grandmother’s face, which seems frozen in a slightly lopsided grimace, Deborah light-heartedly explains that this is Po’nmobuah’s first Ma’Nene. While undressing Po’nmobuah, they discover a pouch with coins and a 1000 Rupiah bill. The family members good-naturedly compete for the loot, laughing and shouting while Deborah shoos them away as they attempt to pull coins from Deborah’s closed fists.

Deborah also removes her parents for cleaning and changing. Her father, Ne’Moli’ died twelve years ago while her mother, Ne’Bana’ passed fourteen years ago. If a mummy can be beautiful, then Ne’Bana’ qualifies. She has long, thick grayish-blonde hair and wears a striking gold two-piece outfit when disinterred.

Anticipation builds around a mummy when a family prepares to stand it upright. Families hold up the mummified corpses of their loved ones for photographs on day two, while cleaning hard to reach places. The male corpses modestly wear only boxer briefs and the female corpses wear a bit of cloth.

The living also proudly display their dead on day three, standing the mummies upright while putting on new clothes and touching up any areas previously missed. It takes a team to dress a mummy. One person supports it, several others carefully pull on tops and bottoms, while a few people stand around criticizing. Once complete, another photo session begins.

Each time, family members clamor to have their picture taken with the mummies. Next, locals unrelated to the deceased crowd in for pictures, exchanging cigarettes and candies for the privilege. Some people take their hats off and place them on a mummy’s head for the photographs. ‘Selfies’ abound.

In a perfect depiction of the syncretism of Toraja religion, a few people clean and care for mummies on a flat concrete surface at the foot of a large wooden cross. Observers lean against the cross, smoking cigarettes and resting their beer or palm wine on an arm of the cross.

The majority of Toraja identify as Christian. A conversation with ninety-year old Petrus Kambuno, a highly respected Tomina (traditional priest) who is also Christian, indicates that it’s a bit more complex. Ma’Nene comes from the traditional animistic religion Aluk To Dolo. Toraja believe the deceased must be cared for so that they will help their descendants living in this world, instead of causing hardship. The souls of the deceased are in Pura, the next world. They benefit from the cleaning and new clothes. According to Mr. Kambuno, when the living Toraja seek help from their ancestors, for example when someone is ill or a couple cannot conceive, they pray to their ancestors who visit in a dream and provide guidance. The Toraja believe that they will see their deceased family members again in the next world. During Ma’Nene, they find comfort in a renewed connection in this world. A comfort so palpable that the observer is left wondering why this tradition is so unique.

Dhyan Ho