Friday, February 6, 2009
man climbs quietly from a grave andcloses a white burialcloth that shrouds a skeleton. The bonesare the color of burned earth and inpieces. A maggotscuttles to hide behind the empty eyesocket of the skull. After more than 30 years of interment, all that is left of a oncemiddle-aged adult now fits into a small bundle. A weathered, wooden plaque with jagged edges bears the name the skeletononce answered to. At Menteng Pulo Public Cemetery inSouth Jakarta, the air is fresh with thescent of blossoming trees and rich earth. Alone mottled mutt threads cautiously among the graves, its skin matted andreddish from the rain and earth. She sits ontop of a grave, observing as 50 gravediggerscalmly go about their work. They are not burying the dead but raising them, literally,from their graves. Along a large strip of land near theCideng River, 10,600 square meters to beexact, emptied graves with ragged edgesline the cemetery. The workers have beencommissioned by the city administrationto unearth about 3,500 plots to make way for a highway linking Jalan Soepomo andJalan Rasuna Said.“Traditionally, you cannot disturb thedead,” sayd Entong, the head gravedigger.“But this is a city that is developing, andthey need to expand the road.”Inside an open grave, Entong breaks upthe damp soil with a rusty hoe. His black jeans and feet are encrusted with redearth. He hands the last of the unearthed bones to his assistant to wrap in cloth andtake to another burial plot that has beenallocated for the exhumed bodies.“This one was buried in 1962, so thereare very few bones left,” Entong says,pointing to the decomposed bundle of bones about the size of an infant.Entong climbs out of the grave and begins to break the gray headstone withhis hoe. Pieces of stone fly around him. Hehas to remove the name plaque embeddedin the stone so it can be placed with theremains for identification. His skin is burnished from the 32 years he has workedoutdoors as a gravedigger.“People call me first when they want to bury someone,” Entong says.On this overcast morning, no weeping orhushed prayers for the displaced dead areheard, only the thud of hoes hitting the soil.Entong says it has been two months sincethe excavation of the graves commencedand it is scheduled to end next week.“At the beginning there were morerelatives,” Entong says. “Now it is rare forfamilies to come even though we haveinformed them we will be digging up thegraves. Maybe they have moved. Maybethey can’t bear the process.”The majority of the graves are Muslim but Entong estimates 800 Buddhist graveswill also be uncovered this week.The remains are being moved to new burial plots further down the road.Unclaimed remains are moved to a cemetery at Kampung Kandang inCilandak or to Srengseng Sawah Cemetery in South Jakarta, Entong says.The ground is soft as paste from theongoing Jakarta showers and he flings itaround him as he hoes. An errant andpersistent fly flits around his bare feet.“We take the remains out, wrap themup and then knock down the gravestone,”explains Suroh, a caretaker at Menteng Pulo since the ’70s. Wearing a red shirt, a large mole jutting from his chin, hewatches Entong work in the distance.“I do not cry at anyone’s funeral,” Surohsays. “I am used to them.“We are here to fix their homes, theirfinal resting place.”It is noon when Entong rests inside a makeshift wooden hut in the middle of thecemetery. The soiled clothes of thecaretakers hang to dry nearby onheadstones and from overhanging trees. A caretaker chugs on a motorcycledown the narrow dirt road that runsthrough the cemetery, ferrying four white bundles to an ambulance for relocation.“It is funny. Kaplok, kaplok, kaplok isthe sound of the bodies flapping,” saysSuroh as he watches.“We are all the same. In the end we willdie,” he adds as he deeply inhales from a clove cigarette.Under the cool shade of the hut, the mensit in their mud-caked clothes, sipping hot,milky coffee and talk lightheartedly aboutdeath. Entong recounts a time when he hadto break the legs of a corpse.“If I didn’t, they wouldn’t fit into thecloth,” he says.The
or burial cloths, arerough pieces of white cloth two meters inlength. “These ones cost Rp 12,000 [about$1],” Entong says, pointing to a pile of fabricin a cupboard. “Cheap ones.”The hush is disturbed by the arrival of Iwan Suwandi and his family. Togetherwith his wife, Suwarti, his sister, sister-in-law and grandson, he has come to rebury his son Rachmad.“I was shocked to get the notice fromthe cemetery,” Suwandi says, of being notified of the disinterment. “I found out atLebaran,” he adds. A gentle-looking man with glasses andspecks of grey through his hair, Suwandihad been ill for the past three months andunable to come to Menteng Pulo earlier.Wearing a tan fishing hat andcheckered shirt, Ali greets Suwandi, whomhe knows. The caretaker has been tending Rachmad’s grave since he was buried herefour years ago. An old hand, Ali has workedat cemeteries since 1948 and takes care of 100 plots in Menteng Pulo.Rachmad, Suwandi’s third son, died of liver problems at the age of 24. “I wanted tomove him to Bogor but we have no family there,” says Suwandi, who instead askedfor his son’s body to be moved nearby within the Menteng Pulo cemetery.Entong is called upon to dig up the body.“It is his job to dig. We each have a duty,”explains Suroh, whose own position iscaring for the graves, like Ali.Entong alternates using his hands andthe hoe to scoop out the earth. The burialcloth is laid on the ground beside the graveand he begins to place the unearthedchunks of bone on it. Two assistantscrouch nearby to lay them out on the burialcloth. Standing above his son’s grave,Suwandi’s face is placid as he calmly
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> Feature C4
Mortality is in the air in Jakarta’s Mentengdistrict as more than 3,000 graves arerelocated to make way for a new highway
After more than 30years of interment,the remains of a manwho died aged 49make up a bundleabout the size of aninfant.
JG Photo/Yudhi Sukma Wijaya
‘Traditionally, you cannotdisturb thedead. But this isa city that isdeveloping.’
> Continued on C2
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