Friday, December 11, 2009

Remembering our Dead

I haven’t posted in awhile, and I’m feeling pretty guilty about it. Apparently though, I’m not the only one who’s noticed. I had a number of complaints yesterday that no new posts had been put up in while.

I must say, I’m glad that people are reading, and care when I don’t post; but I’m pretty new to this, so forgive me for not being a great blogger. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that I have something interesting to write about.

And now for something completely different.

I woke up on Wednesday feeling tired. Extremely tired. I did not want to get out of bed, I did not want to take a cold shower in my bathroom, and I did not want to teach. My classes started at 8:45am, and at 8am I was still in bed. So, I rolled out of bed, skipped showering, ate a quick bowl of cereal with long shelf-life milk, and got dressed in a flash. I decided that since I put little to no effort into making myself ready for work, I put on one of my most beautiful outfits: a long, simply embroidered golden blouse with my long, white, full skirt.

I hopped on a bentor and took the 7 minute ride to school only to arrive and find things not as they should be. Something seemed off - different. There was a group of 10 students standing outside discussing something intently with a teacher in Bahasa Indonesia. The Language Teacher’s Lounge was empty save me upon entering. I looked at my watch, class should be starting in one minute, but no one was making a sign of changing classes. What was going on? Was there a ceremony? Was class canceled? Were the classes strangely quiet, and all of the language teachers just in class at the same time?

A teacher came to the entrance of the Language Teacher’s Lounge and called a student to her. The discussed something, and then the student entered, and then in broken English, said this, “Taufik’s mother has been died this morning. Can 10 B go to his funeral now in Telaga?” I hurriedly agreed and told them to please go and be there for Taufik.

They asked me if they could go because I was about to teach their class. Taufik is a student of mine, in class 10 B. He is one of my best students. I was shocked. How could someone so young, die so suddenly?

Just as I’m really letting this news sink in, another student comes in and asks if the students in class 10 A can go to the funeral too. I again say, “Of course,” only to their cheers of approval. This I find strange. I can only think that they cheer at the opportunity to support their fellow student whom they love.

Everyone loves Taufik. He’s a very sweet boy, and a great student. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole school was going.

So there I was. I only had to teach two classes on Wednesday, 10 A and 10 B, and both of them were gone, at a funeral. Suddenly I found myself with nothing to do. Contemplating going back home and mulling over death and how it’s perceived in this culture, a year 12 student enters my lonely teacher’s lounge and asks me if I want to go to the funeral. Without hesitation, I say, “Yes, of course.” Quickly, she and I leave the lounge, hail a bentor, and take the ride to Telaga.

I must stop here, and tell you a few things about Indonesian culture. I agreed to go to this funeral so quickly because in this culture it is essential that you attend every funeral event associated with anyone in your community, and anyone you know. Whether you know them personally or not is not important. If they are a member of your community or extended community, you are expected to attend the funeral, and support the family. At a different funeral I attended with Alexa, there was a teacher from her school that was missing, and people asked about her. When you don’t show up for a funeral, people notice and ask questions. Luckily this teacher had a good excuse to miss the funeral, and since every teacher was present and accounted for, the community, collectively, felt at ease that everyone who could be there was there to support this family.

So, I felt that it was pertinent that I go to this funeral. Not to mention, I really like Taufik and I wanted to support him during this time of mourning.

Now, logistics.

From what I’ve gathered, once the funeral starts that wrap the body up in a bag and tie it closed at the end, cover it in a pretty cloth (blue and white for Taufik’s mother), and put it on a flat gurney-type thing made of bamboo. They then pray over her with everyone present at her house. At this point she has not left the house since she died.

After praying over her a bunch of men pick up this bamboo gurney and lead her out of her house. Other men have attached long pieces of bamboo to the end of umbrellas, and fastened about a foot of lace around the edge of the umbrella cloth. These improved umbrellas they position over the body as it is processed from the house to a nearby mosque.

this point everyone at the funeral, which is a lot of people (250-300), is already there, dressed in white, and following the procession of the body from the home to the mosque.

Once everyone has reached the mosque, they crowd into it, and begin to pray again with the body. The many of us who could not fit in the mosque stand around outside in the heat, respectfully standing, or praying to ourselves.

Then the body is again processed back to the house, where a burial site has been prepared. Two mounds of dirt stand on either side of the 5-foot hole. With a very large white piece of lace being outstretched above the body, men crouch down and carefully place the body in the hole. They are carefully to untie the bag that the body is in, but leave the body bag on. This is an important step, because with the bag untied her spirit is free to leave her body, but if left tied, her spirit will be trapped inside her body, in that bag, forever. The gurney-like device is discarded before this, and she is placed in the ground on top of a very large piece of plastic, which lines the sides of the deep hole.

The 4 men who have lifted the body down into the hole, remain there and begin to place 3 feet long pieces of bamboo over the body. The bamboo is all cut to the same length, and has been cut at an angle at the end, so that the pieces of bamboo can be placed above the body, protecting it, at an angle. From left to right the pieces are placed above the body, and the four men, simply pick up their feet, place it down, and stand on the bamboo, instead of the ground. When finished, the bamboo makes a platform above the body that sits at a 45⁰ to the earth.

Once the bamboo is in place other men take shovels and begin to shovel the dirt into the hole. The four men remain in the hole and use their feet to compact the dirt above the bamboo. Their white funeral clothes get very dirty in the process, but this is their honored job, and they don’t seem to mind or notice how dirty they are getting. A few more minutes follow like this until the dirt on the burial site is a little higher than that of the earth around it.

Then bits of flowers are distributed to a select few, and these flowers are sprinkled liberally over the new mound of dirt. Then the last prayer begins. Seven men (sometimes more, sometimes less) then begin to pray from the Holy Qur’an. They are crouched beside the fresh mound of dirt, and then begin to read aloud from the Qur’an, in Arabic, and they all appear to be reading from different passages. Their prayer, the mixture of their voices becomes a din, and all you can feel is the powerful love and devotion to their god with which they all read. After minutes of this the various prayers become one unified rhythmic chant. The chant has one strong beat, and five softer, less important beats. The six beated chant becomes faster, increases in speed. You begin to think it will spin out of control in gets so fast. Then beats are simultaneously dropped, and the six beated rhythm becomes a four beated rhythm, and then quickly just two beats.

Suddenly, as you might expect, it just stops.

The funeral, at least the first day of it, is over.

The participants must wish blessings and good health individually to those in the family before they leave and go back to their days. I shook the hands of the family members, including Taufik, who upon shaking my hand thanked me for taking the time to come to his mother’s funeral.

My goodness, I thought, don’t thank me. Your mother has just died, please don’t be concerned with little old me. But, throughout their days, their respect for me and their love of me prevails. Even though it was his mother’s funeral, he showed real thanks to me that I had come, indicating that in some small way, he was honored by my presence.

This of course seems crazy to me when I think of how infrequently people are honored by my presence in America. I’m going to be in for a real culture shock when I get back, and people just don’t care that much that I’m there.

I am sorry that this has been so long, and I must tell you, that I’m not done yet. I have some thoughts, and reflections to now share with you.

I have been to more funerals and funeral related ceremonies in the last 3 months than I have been to in the previous 4 years of my life.

I’ll just let that sink in.

What does that mean? Do more people die in Indonesia? In Gorontalo? Am I just invited to more funerals?

I think I have been to so many funerals recently due to a combination of the above factors, and one other very important one. Here, there is not just a funeral on the day that someone dies. There’s a ceremony seven days after, twenty days after, and forty days after. In Gorontalo you wear white to every ceremony, except the last, to which you wear blue. The forty days after funeral ceremony, I have heard from Alexa, is a pretty big deal. This is one of the biggest celebrations, with the most food. We decided that this is because it is the last occasion for the whole community to jointly mourn the loss of a loved one.

Death here seems to be a little more frequently occurring, and maybe as a consequence is understood and accepted more easily than I accept death. Death here seems to be a much more accepted part of life, and something to be taken in stride. Few cry, although the immediate family sheds some tears, the death is taken mostly as a reminder that life is meant to end, and that is why trust and faith in god is so important.

This acceptance of death is hard to handle for Alexa and I. We are constantly shocked at how easily they are able to handle death, and not let it negatively affect their lives. As a culture they have accepted its presence and learned to live with it. It is truly amazing, and fascinating to behold. It is power and boldness like I have never seen before.

Lastly: When did our culture, our American culture, stop putting so much time and festivities into our celebrations of the dead? It seems to me that in many cultures, the dead are celebrated or remembered with much ado, or for a long time after that first funeral.

In short, this upsets me, and I want to bring this tradition back to America. I want a big celebration for my funeral, and I want to be remembered for weeks after my death in a public, communal way. The family really does mourn for this long, but our American society cuts off the communal mourning long before mourning is done.
Indonesians wisely have a ceremony seven days after the funeral, at the home of the deceased, in which the community prays along with the family of the deceased. This is perfect. For anyone who has lost a loved one, it is in the weeks following the funeral that you get the most lonely, the most sad, and possibly the most angry at god for allowing this to happen. But when, on the seventh day after your loved ones death, the entire community, everyone important to you and your loved one, gathers at your house to keep your faith strong and show you the great amount of love that still exists in this world, how could you be angry at god? All of this love and support helps your mourning seems a little less solitary, and I promise it helps keep your trust in god strong.

Don’t we all need a little more love and support in our lives?


  1. I've been thinking a good bit about funerals too this year. Thanks for posting this. I wonder how Indonesian funeral practice differs from Muslim funeral practice elsewhere.

    For example, I don't think American Muslims believe that the soul remains in the body at all after death, and I don't think the body is usually brought inside the mosque. I wonder how much the practice differs throughout Indonesia.

    I think the answer to your question about death practices in America is that, things changed when communities became less-centered around the houses of worship. The activities within those houses became less central to our lives. Or another answer is that, in small communities in America death still can take a prominent place. Two examples:

    Rafi's funeral this year was a huge event. An entire community turned out. Why? His youth for one, but also because his family is deeply involved with specific religious establishments. And not only was there the funeral, but the community came to their house twice a day for a week for prayer, and for the next year his family will add a specific prayer called kaddish to their thrice-daily services; a prayer which can only be recited if at least 10 members of the community are present. At the end of the year another ceremony will be held to unveil the headstone on his grave. After this, the kaddish will only be recited on the anniversary of his death and on specific holy days.

    The second example was my grandfather's death. The funeral was in DeLand--a small community in Florida. It seemed that the entire city turned out. My memory isn't good enough to recall specifics, but the difference between his funeral and my dad's mom who was buried in an enormous cemetery in South Florida was striking. In smaller towns, funerals are not just family events, and bringing food for and visiting the bereaved goes on for much longer.

    (You remember I took a class at Rice on the sociology of death and dying from that professor who was actually dying during the semester and died at the end of the semester... since then I've taken a little more interest in death practices than is probably normal. Sorry about the long response.)

  2. No! The long response was much needed and anticipated. I'm really glad to hear that in some cases in the United States, the bereavement process can last a long time and be community oriented. The question now is how can we make this more wide-spread? Is the only answer to become more focused on our religious practices? What about an Irish wake? I think that includes an entire community, but is not necessarily focused on the religious aspects. Ahh, of course. Small communities abound in Ireland.... you observations seem to be right.
    I will think on this more.
    Thanks Stephen.

  3. Well, there are ways to have small communities within larger communities other than religion, right? The thing about religion is that one of its main appeals is how it explains life after death. It also already has built in (often helpful) mourning rituals.

    What might be more of an issue is that larger communities make stigmatizing death easier. But the question is, why do we stigmatize death at all?

    Were you already gone when the republicans went crazy talking about the issue of "death panels" in the health care debate. Of course, the reality was that a lawmaker wanted people to have access to end of life counseling... This is, of course, an awesome idea. We spend a huge amount of money on the last few months of life. Like, huge. More importantly, that money translates into time in the hospital. We die in hospitals now, usually drugged and/or in pain. Doctors are trained to fight death, which for most people is good, but for people who are going to die, prolonging that death is often sucky.

    Anyways, death stigma is an interesting topic. I've got some books on it for you when you get home.

  4. Good post Sarah. An additional thought or two.Our families have gotten spread out so much that we in America can stay far away from disease/sickness/death anything "negative" And in the youth and health culture of US in particular these 3 are considered the ultimate failures.Also since we are no longer an agrarian society we have sterilized all forms of death and birth!