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Raising The Dead
Mortality is in the air in Jakarta’s Menteng district as more than 3,000 graves are relocated to make way for a new highway
Report Titania Veda
man climbs quietly from a grave and closes a white burial cloth that shrouds a skeleton. The bones are the color of burned earth and in pieces. A maggot scuttles to hide behind the empty eye socket of the skull. After more than 30 years of interment, all that is left of a once middle-aged adult now fits into a small bundle. A weathered, wooden plaque with jagged edges bears the name the skeleton once answered to. At Menteng Pulo Public Cemetery in South Jakarta, the air is fresh with the scent of blossoming trees and rich earth. A lone mottled mutt threads cautiously among the graves, its skin matted and reddish from the rain and earth. She sits on top of a grave, observing as 50 gravediggers calmly go about their work. They are not burying the dead but raising them, literally, from their graves. Along a large strip of land near the Cideng River, 10,600 square meters to be exact, emptied graves with ragged edges line the cemetery. The workers have been commissioned by the city administration to unearth about 3,500 plots to make way for a highway linking Jalan Soepomo and Jalan Rasuna Said. “Traditionally, you cannot disturb the dead,” sayd Entong, the head gravedigger. “But this is a city that is developing, and they need to expand the road.” Inside an open grave, Entong breaks up the damp soil with a rusty hoe. His black jeans and feet are encrusted with red earth. He hands the last of the unearthed bones to his assistant to wrap in cloth and take to another burial plot that has been allocated for the exhumed bodies. “This one was buried in 1962, so there are 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 with his hoe. Pieces of stone fly around him. He has to remove the name plaque embedded in the stone so it can be placed with the remains for identification. His skin is burnished from the 32 years he has worked outdoors as a gravedigger. “People call me first when they want to bury someone,” Entong says. On this overcast morning, no weeping or hushed prayers for the displaced dead are heard, only the thud of hoes hitting the soil. Entong says it has been two months since the excavation of the graves commenced and it is scheduled to end next week. “At the beginning there were more

> Feature C4

City Beat C13


relatives,” Entong says. “Now it is rare for families to come even though we have informed them we will be digging up the graves. Maybe they have moved. Maybe they can’t bear the process.” The majority of the graves are Muslim but Entong estimates 800 Buddhist graves will 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 in Cilandak or to Srengseng Sawah Cemetery in South Jakarta, Entong says. The ground is soft as paste from the ongoing Jakarta showers and he flings it around him as he hoes. An errant and persistent fly flits around his bare feet. “We take the remains out, wrap them up 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, he watches Entong work in the distance. “I do not cry at anyone’s funeral,” Suroh says. “I am used to them. “We are here to fix their homes, their final resting place.” It is noon when Entong rests inside a makeshift wooden hut in the middle of the cemetery. The soiled clothes of the caretakers hang to dry nearby on headstones and from overhanging trees. A caretaker chugs on a motorcycle down the narrow dirt road that runs through the cemetery, ferrying four white bundles to an ambulance for relocation. “It is funny. Kaplok, kaplok, kaplok is the sound of the bodies flapping,” says Suroh as he watches. “We are all the same. In the end we will die,” he adds as he deeply inhales from a clove cigarette. Under the cool shade of the hut, the men sit in their mud-caked clothes, sipping hot, milky coffee and talk lightheartedly about death. Entong recounts a time when he had to break the legs of a corpse. “If I didn’t, they wouldn’t fit into the cloth,” he says. The kain kapan, or burial cloths, are rough pieces of white cloth two meters in length. “These ones cost Rp 12,000 [about $1],” Entong says, pointing to a pile of fabric in a cupboard. “Cheap ones.” The hush is disturbed by the arrival of Iwan Suwandi and his family. Together with his wife, Suwarti, his sister, sister-inlaw and grandson, he has come to rebury his son Rachmad. “I was shocked to get the notice from the cemetery,” Suwandi says, of being notified of the disinterment. “I found out at Lebaran,” he adds. A gentle-looking man with glasses and specks of grey through his hair, Suwandi

‘Traditionally, you cannot disturb the dead. But this is a city that is developing.’
Endong, gravedigger

had been ill for the past three months and unable to come to Menteng Pulo earlier. Wearing a tan fishing hat and checkered shirt, Ali greets Suwandi, whom he knows. The caretaker has been tending Rachmad’s grave since he was buried here four years ago. An old hand, Ali has worked at 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 to move him to Bogor but we have no family there,” says Suwandi, who instead asked for 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 is caring for the graves, like Ali. Entong alternates using his hands and the hoe to scoop out the earth. The burial cloth is laid on the ground beside the grave and he begins to place the unearthed chunks of bone on it. Two assistants crouch nearby to lay them out on the burial cloth. Standing above his son’s grave, Suwandi’s face is placid as he calmly
> Continued on C2

After more than 30 years of interment, the remains of a man who died aged 49 make up a bundle about the size of an infant. JG Photo/ Yudhi Sukma Wijaya

Photo Essay Eyewitness > C8-9 For an expanded photo gallery online, go to



Jakarta Globe Friday, February 6, 2009

This Day in History February 6


An apparent suicide bombing kills at least 40 people and injures more than 100 on an underground train during morning rush-hour in Moscow
1922: The Washington Conference ends with the United States, France, Japan, Italy and Britain agreeing on restricting the use of poison gas and submarine warfare 1922: Cardinal Achille Ratti is elected Pope Pius XI, succeeding Benedict XV 1952: Britain’s King George VI dies. He is succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth II 1958: A plane carrying the Manchester United football team back from a European Cup match crashes on the runway at Munich Airport. Eight members of the side, nicknamed “The Busby Babes” after their manager Matt Busby, are among the 23 killed.

Taking the Kids to Vietnam
Taking children on holiday may take extra planning but can be fun for all the family

Zoe, 7, and Nathan Saldinger 10, the writer’s children, visiting a lacquerware factory on a trip to Vietnam. CSM Photo/Cathryn J. Prince

1993: US tennis great Arthur Ashe, the first black man to win the Wimbledon singles title, dies at the age of 49

1997: Ecuador’s Congress votes to oust embattled President Abdala Bucaram on grounds of mental incompetence 2000: Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen is elected Finland’s first female president


The first Chinese ship to make a legal, direct voyage to a Taiwan-held island in more than five decades docks at heavily fortified Quemoy as part of rapprochement efforts
2003: Colombia’s labor and health ministers are killed after their small plane crashes on a flight that was to have crossed an Andean mountain range 2007: Two-time Olympic silver medalist Willye White, the only American to compete on five Olympic athletics teams, dies at the age of 67


Report Cathryn J. Prince
At first my husband and I were wary, but when our tour guide explained people were excited to see Western children, particularly American children, we relaxed and relished the interaction. It was not until we arrived in Hue — and saw the tombs and the citadel that not only dated back centuries, but had withstood decades of war — that it really sank in how far from home we were. The Imperial City of Hue — a complex of temples and palaces — rests on the left bank of the Perfume River, about halfway between Hanoi and Saigon. Modeled after Beijing’s Forbidden City, it covers almost 6.5 square kilometers. If you are taking a similar trip, be forewarned: Although water and ice cream were available throughout the compound, it was not enough to keep young mouths

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hen I told friends that my husband and I planned to travel to Vietnam with our two young children, I received many surprised looks. They could not understand why we would want to visit a tropical country in the height of summer — a place where you are cautioned to brush your teeth with bottled water. The reason for the trip came from a deeply personal need to travel to the place where my father served as a flight surgeon in the US Air Force from 1962 to 1964. Our itinerary included Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, Da Lat, Nha Trang and Saigon. We wanted it to be an emotionally and culturally rewarding trip. However, as we began our planning, we discovered a dearth of Web sites geared toward families vacationing in developing countries. So we talked with people who had visited similar countries and who warned us of possible pitfalls — from chaos in the streets to the possibility of various food-borne illnesses. But we remained undeterred about our trip. Sure, we had concerns about the flights, the food, and even fatigue, but leaving Nathan, 10, and Zoe, 7, at home never entered our minds. Overall, we found Vietnam to be incredibly child-friendly. Many Vietnamese — from students at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi to the vendors in Da Lat — asked to have their photo taken with Nathan and Zoe.

from getting parched during our highnoon tour. The citadel impressed, but the evening boat ride on the river enchanted our children. They loved waving to locals who were taking a sunset dip in the water. From Hue we drove to Da Nang, which served as a strategic air and seaport during the war. The nearby city of Hoi An proved to be a festival for the eye. Colorful pagodas, narrow houses, and rainbowcolored lantern shops adorn the 16thcentury port. Having learned our midday lesson in Hue, we decided on an early morning walk. Nathan and Zoe loved ambling through the maze-like market, pointing at heaps of maggots, squirming crabs, and wriggling eels. Midway through our trip, we had the choice of a six-hour ride from Nha Trang to Da Lat or a three-hour route. It was not a hard decision. The shorter route climbs and winds over mountains while offering incredible vistas of Dr. Seuss–like trees, coffee plantations and red earth. In Da Lat we visited the aptly nicknamed Crazy House. Designed by architect and proprietor Dang Viet Nga

and opened to the public in 1990, the tree house-cum-guesthouse swirls with Escher-like staircases, winding passages, and whimsical statues. Months before our trip, our family had discussed how different Vietnam would be from home. Flexibility and patience would be words to live by, we emphasized. Days would be long; tour guides usually start by 8:30 a.m. and finish around 5 p.m. During our trip, we learned to ask for later start times to help offset sight-seeing fatigue. We made sure every hotel we stayed at had access to the beach, a pool or both. After a long day of touring, a dip in the pool revived everyone. We could have used a day or two to do nothing but wade in the blue waters of the South China Sea. Several guidebooks cautioned that martial music and government announcements would greet each new day from the loudspeakers that bloom from telephone poles in nearly every town and city. Well, we did not hear any sunrise announcements near our hotels, but that did not mean it was quiet. From hornhonking trucks and zooming motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City to crowing roosters in Da Lat, noise filled the air. Despite our planned itinerary, Nathan and Zoe had their best cultural connections when we were not following a strict agenda — such as when Zoe got up close and personal with a villager’s python in the Mekong Delta, or when Nathan carried an elderly woman’s wares in the Hoi An market. More than any museum or palace, these moments linked our children to this land and its people. As we were told, few travel here with young children, but if you do, it will be well worth it. Even though Zoe began to yearn for soft-serve ice cream like that found at home, she also relished the memory of eating an incredibly tender elephant fish wrapped in rice paper in the Mekong Delta.
The Christian Science Monitor

Zoe Saldinger making a local friend at Hoi An Market, Vietnam. CSM Photo/Cathryn J. Prince

Raising the Dead
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inquires about the whereabouts of his son’s skull. The wooden headstone reads, Rachmad H. bin Iwan Suwandi, etched black upon painted white wood. Slivers of the skeleton’s rib cage are taken out one by one. Entong continues to dig and finds a hipbone. Finally, he finds the skull. Suwandi places his hand over his mouth and lets out a small gasp. The family begins to pray. A sniff escapes Suwandi as he continues to look at Entong in the grave. “His legs aren’t here yet,” Suwandi says. Entong clears the mud from his hoe and continues digging. The air is hushed and the smell of rain is heavy on the breeze. “We forgot to bring an

umbrella,” Suwandi says to his wife, who nods agreement. Their 7-year old grandson, dressed in blue, has his hand on his knees and keeps his gaze intently on the open grave. The women look distressed. When Ali comes over to help wrap the bones, Suwandi asks if the bundle is heavy. Ali says it isn’t. Three men wrap the bundle tightly and hand the bones to Suwandi. With steady steps on the slippery, rainsoaked earth, Suwandi carries his son to a prepared burial site, mouthing a silent prayer. A little way up the road from where Rachmad was originally buried, a gaping hole six feet deep awaits. The small congregation stops, and Suwandi hands the bundle to a gravedigger as he jumps in the grave. The body is gently returned to

him and the gravediggers tell him to open the bundle. “All of it,” says one as the other balls up chunks of soil with his hands. “It is to prop up the body so it does not overturn,” he explains. Suwandi carefully tucks his son into his resting place and two men start to fill in the grave. An imam in a black velvet skullcap, propping himself up with a multicolored umbrella, asks for the name of the deceased and begins a low chant. Only the boy’s name, Rachmad, rings out as the imam crouches by the grave. All else is quiet save for the sound of hoes hitting the ground. The mother opens a prayer book, her face partially hidden under her black jilbab as she prays along with the imam. Her grandson stands behind her, holding her arm.

Suwandi straightens his son’s old headstone and turns his palms up to the sky. The imam moves toward him and they pray side by side. The earth atop Rachmad’s new grave is choppy and uneven, but Ali explains it will be tidied later. He takes out one of his clove cigarettes, lights it and stands before this new grave he will also care for. A warm wind blows. From a nearby mosque, the resonant call to prayers rings out, echoed softly by surrounding mosques. More Photos Eyewitness > C8-9 For an expanded photo gallery online, go to

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Iwan Suwandi carrying his son Rachmad’s disinterred remains to their new resting place, where, after reburying them, he relocates the original headstone. JG Photos/Yudhi Sukma Wijaya

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