Indonesia Expat
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The Final Question: Bury or Burn?

The Final Question: Bury or Burn (cremation) ?
The Final Question: Bury or Burn?

Many tourists in Bali will have witnessed “Ngaben”, the open-air Hindu cremations. Those for the rich and famous can be spectacular events. But in Java, the process is more industrial as Duncan Graham discovered.

About 88 percent of Javanese follow Islam which requires a body to be buried within the day of death, a wise rule in the tropics. This has led to community organisations developing slick undertaking duties.

News of passing comes through white flags with a black + symbol. The body is washed, briefly displayed for family and friends, wrapped in a “kafan” (shroud) or a plain coffin, and then dashed to the graveyard before the sprinkled perfumes can no longer mask the decomposition.

Common hearses are labelled “ambulances” and the drive to the cemetery is heralded by a siren. The hole has already been dug and the body is soon interred.

For non-Muslims wanting burial but needing to stall so distant friends and relatives can gather, there are commercial mortuaries. Formaldehyde can be injected, though this tends to discolour and distort features.

Families that keep the body at home for a service need plenty of ice. Long sermons hasten the melting. Water dripping into buckets under the trestle focuses the mind on the short span of life.

In Indonesia, the word “Kristen means Protestant and is separate from “Katolik” (Catholic). This curious cataloguing dates back to government decisions after the Ministry for Religious Affairs was formed in 1946 to approve faiths. There are currently six, with Confucianism and Buddhism added to the four mentioned above.

Catholics in Java still prefer burials – Protestants aren’t too fussy. Cemeteries are getting crowded and costs rising, so there’s a movement towards following Hindus and Buddhists and turning to fire. 

Unlike Singapore, where 80 percent of the dead are now cremated (in Australia it’s 70 percent and 60 in the US), the practice in Indonesia is only slowly catching on.

Expansion is compounded by a lack of facilities. There are only seven crematoria in Java, according to the British-based charity the Cremation Society. This was established in the 19th century, “for developments in the law so that this rational, safe and dignified method of disposal of the dead might be practised with the least possible restriction.”

The crematorium in Surakarta (Solo) was idle when your correspondent was in the Central Java city. There were no queues for the three ovens – a contrast to the situation in Australia where business is brisk and sterile, with the encased corpse far from the mourners and on a short conveyor belt.

After the eulogies, the officiating minister presses a button on the lectern. The casket disappears through curtains so all the confronting mechanics of disposing of the dead are invisible.

Not so in Solo. The coffin was on a trolley before a roller door looking much like the front of a suburban garage or lock-up shop.

When the service and petal showering had finished, the door was raised to reveal the incinerator. The family walked through a smoke-stained workshop with brooms, shovels and other tools propped around. It had all the ambience of a Kampong car repair yard.

Workers pushed the coffin off the trolley and into the oven while relatives stood around, said prayers and took photos. The eldest son split a watermelon on the side of the furnace and then dashed it onto the floor. This is a Chinese practice sometimes followed by other ethnicities. It symbolises the dispersal of the deceased’s descendants during life and their coming together at the end.

The heavy steel door was slammed shut and the onlookers retreated to the open-air hall. Apart from chairs, it was unfurnished with no religious insignia.

The roller door rattled down. A blue light, like those used on police cars, started flashing as the next-of-kin pushed a button on the wall. A siren briefly moaned. Our friend was on his way.

This openness helps dispel a common myth about cremation – that bodies are taken from the casket, the corpse stripped of valuables and the box resold. There’s also the practical issue –  an unsealed coffin is on the nose.

The diesel-powered furnace fired up to 1,000 degrees and two hours later the ashes were cooling and ready to be taken. A body of 80 kilograms gets reduced to one. The chimney at the rear was high enough to prevent odours from reaching the mourners.

They also didn’t see the backroom process viewed by this writer in the Surabaya crematorium where limb bones hadn’t been roasted to grey ash so had to be crushed to fit in the urn.

The workers used a hand-cranked mincer, then a stainless steel prosthetic once worn by someone who’d undergone expensive surgery. The smooth ball at the end of the artificial joint together with an iron pot made for an ideal mortar and pestle like a kitchen set.

For those interested in death rituals but reluctant to be present at the real event, the magnificent documentary “Lempad of Bali” by the late Australian producer and director John Darling is a respectful tribute to the 116-year-old artist.

What’s a cremation cost? Prices vary according to the province and the services sought. It starts at around Rp10 million and flies upwards. Like a soul released.

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