ABC / Anthropologists / Photographers

Would you hang out with your dead relatives? It might be life-changing

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. (Supplied: Paul Koundanaris)

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.

“They let the dead body lie here under a tree called Taru Menyan, and they cover it with a special fabric that we normally use here in Bali for someone who has passed away.” 

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.

“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.

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.

“The living and the dead were encouraged to interact. That’s what we’re seeing in Indonesia, for instance; we’re seeing this invitation to cross the border to interact with these people who have passed on.”

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.

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

“One time, the family found love letters dating back to 1987, and they read it out loud for all of us,” Sayoga recalls.

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.

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

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.

“We’ve invented this stigma around death – that we have to be very formal around the dead – but they [the locals] don’t necessarily see it that way. They enjoy the interaction and they like seeing us interact as well. It is just a very different relationship.”

First published by the ABC. Read the rest of the story here.