THE INDONESIAN WAY OF DEATH © Duncan Graham 2006
It’s a burning question in the West, a non-issue in Bali and a rare query in Java.
Should the bodies of our loved ones be consigned to the flames or the soil?
For this country’s Muslim majority there’s no debate; cremation is banned and wherever possible the corpse must be interred before sundown on the day of death.
Hindus put their dead to the torch, often in lavish open-pyre ceremonies, as most tourists to Bali know. Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants all accept cremation.
But in Indonesia the process remains unpopular despite official approval and a strong Western trend towards incineration. Only ten per cent of the non-Muslim dead in Surabaya are burned in the city’s crematorium. That’s about 80 a month. With four furnaces available the staff are not over-worked.
“There are many positive advantages with cremation,” said Ario Karijanto who claims to have the largest funeral service operating in East Java. “It doesn’t pollute the groundwater like bodies decaying in the soil, and it’s more practical.
“Cremation takes up no space in a country that’s already overcrowded with the living. You can keep the small urn of ashes in your home or garden or scatter them in the sea or a favourite spot - you don’t need to keep visiting a graveyard.
“The problem is the expense. Government fees for all the required certificates are high because so many Christians are Chinese, and the price of diesel fuel has risen. Cremation can be double the cost of a burial
“We don’t push cremation onto families. We give them the facts and let them decide for themselves.”
The latest figures from the US claim almost 30 per cent of body disposal is by cremation. Next door in Canada it’s 63 per cent – in Australia 55 per cent. In Britain cremation societies have been promoting the process since the 1870s and now only 30 per cent are buried. It’s also popular because it’s cheaper.
Orthodox Jews and some fundamentalist Christians reject cremation. Rome gave approval to Catholics in 1963. Apart from tradition, opponents think a cremated body cannot be resurrected come the New Jerusalem.
Ario is the seventh generation in his family to be an undertaker. Like many forensic scientists, pathologists and others involved in the death industry he’s a jolly and lively fellow – essential qualities when every working hour is a stark reminder of our mortality.
His big shop has a vast collection of coffins. They start from particleboard plain - used for the 1,200 pauper burials he conducts for free every year as a community service. They then go to the elaborate, the grotesquely huge (to barge your way into the afterlife), the kitsch and the quite beautiful.
In this last category are teak coffins carved with traditional Javanese designs, the inlays painted soft red and green – so well made that they’d grace any living room. It seems a sin to let them burn or rot.
Coffin sizes follow the clothing system. Were Papa’s shirts L, XL or XXL? We have a casket to suit.
How deep do you have to dig for an all-in funeral cost? That’s like asking the price of a car – Kia or Mercedes? A simple casket and transport will cost around Rp 5 million (US $540). After that it can be anything up to Rp 300 million (US $32,000) if you want the full send-off.
Hearses in Indonesia are not the lavish black limousines used in the West but plain white vans looking more like ambulances. In the Republic the favoured saloon color for the living is black; in Australia it’s white. No wonder the two neighbors have such a difficult relationship.
Most Indonesian families prefer to handle arrangements themselves so undertakers are still a rarity. There are only six in Surabaya, a city of maybe five million people. Relatives wash and dress the corpse at home and employ community and religious organisations to handle the ceremony.
The Surabaya crematorium known as Eka Praya is in one corner of the Kembang Kuning (Yellow Flower) cemetery which is reserved for non-Muslims. There’s even a Jewish section. This is not a good place to visit – and another reason to favor cremation.
The 34-hectare cemetery is already close to overflowing with graves shoulder-to-shoulder, toe-to-toe and sometimes stacked. The problem is not just the dead, but also the living.
Gangs of menacing men carrying gleaming sickles and small brooms quickly surround visitors to their territory. They’ll slash you a track through the imaginary undergrowth and whisk phantom leaves off the tombstone whether you like it or not – then demand money.
Because it’s a largely Chinese area visiting families are assumed to be rich and therefore ripe for exploitation. Similar gangs do not roam the Muslim or military cemeteries. Commented Ario dryly: “They’d get shot if they did.”
At night the place is an open-air brothel with male and female prostitutes offering cheap services on mats tossed over the graves.
“Rest in peace? The place is a slum,” said Ario. “We need a memorial garden like those in the West where ashes can be cemented into a wall or buried in flower beds.
“It should be a quiet place of contemplation. With such a facility I’m sure the number of cremations would increase.
“After a while people forget their dead relatives and the graves fall into disrepair. Then the land is wanted for other purposes. Cremation makes things easier.”
And how will Ario go when his hour comes? It took some moments for the otherwise nimble-tongued undertaker to reply.
“It doesn’t really matter, it’s just a matter of time - slow decay or fast fire,” he said at last, the delay indicating that maybe it did really matter. “It will be up to the family.”
BUT IS IT SAFE?
Colleagues aware this story was underway were keen to offer their own ‘facts’ about cremation. The most popular has the bodies being taken from the coffin, the corpse stripped of valuables and the casket resold.
Ario and the crematorium manager Surawi both dismissed this as a myth and gave guarantees that when the family saw the lid screwed down it stayed that way right into the flames. They also offered a practical note; in the tropics opening a sealed coffin unleashes awful odors.
It takes between two and three hours to cremate a body with temperatures up to 1,000 degrees. The ashes (cremains?) are then raked out and crushed.
Because everything surrounding death is so sensitive the industry in the West has developed its own euphemisms. Crushing is ‘processed to a consistent size and shape’ – meaning that bits of bones are poked into the jaws of a hand-cranked mincer.
At Eka Praya the ram of choice is someone’s artificial hip which survived the flames. Surawi said scissors, clamps and other medical tools were sometimes found among the rakings when people died during surgery.
It takes around 150 litres of diesel to burn a body to ashes. An 80-kilogram body gets reduced to about one kilo of grey granules and white powder.
The brick-lined retorts (called ‘ovens’ by the workers) were built in 1958. They can take only one coffin at a time.
Well water may not get poisoned by body fluids leaching through the soil with cremation, but the atmosphere gets a whoosh of thick black smoke when the burner (a long metal pipe) is shoved under the coffin and fired up.
If you want to think of a wispy pure soul ascending to heaven keep your eyes down. Do not glance at the belching chimney – unless the dear departed was a former driver of a container truck or a Jakarta bus.
In such cases the process is just right.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 July 06))