Monday, February 25, 2008

From Beyond the Grave

After last week's seasonally affected rant against the callous neo-feudal forces of commerce shaping our brave new world I thought I'd leave my supermarket paranoia behind and seek solace among the dead. Really bottoming out now aren't I?

In fact though, a curious contentment descended on me when I visited one of the city's largest cemeteries last Sunday. The boneyard in question covers a pretty large area of land and can be found at the intersection/flyover between Tanah Abang and Jl. Sudirman, just behind BNI 46, the city's tallest skyscraper. I'm sure many of you have passed this garden of the dead before and observed the strange, modernist, triangular, glass and metal monument at its entrance.

As I entered, a burial was underway and seemingly hundreds of behatted Muslims were filing through the stones to the temporarily erected canopy over the departed's grave plot. I strolled through the cemetery, taking a few impressionistic mobile phone photos of headstones projected against a backdrop of the business district’s skyscrapers as I went.

I soon came across a big signboard displaying various rates and surcharges. Renting a grave plot for three years will apparently only set you back Rp.100,000. Amusingly though, also listed amongst the various charges was a considerably more expensive Rp.1,000,000 per two days which is levied at film crews shooting in the graveyard. A fair price I think for desecrating the sanctity of the dead with the ludicrous zombies and overblown pantomime much beloved of local schlock horror B movies. Unfortunately though, during my stroll I didn't come across any scenes reminiscent of Michael Jackson's thriller video.

On the other hand, the graveyard seemed to be a fairly bustling place despite the lack of theatrics. There were goats trotting around everywhere for a start. The odd motorcycle could be seen burning through the stones and some tuneful Dangdhut songs were blasting out in the car park. In addition, locals living close by were fetching and carrying water from the graveyard's pumps and transporting it back to their nearby houses.

At one point, I also became the unwitting recipient of the classic Bule Pied Piper syndrome as about 20 young local children proceeded to follow me around on my meander.

The whole outing was rather agreeable in fact and not at all morbid or in any way a hallowed or spiritual experience. The locals seem to use the place as a park, which is not surprising considering the absence of any other recreation areas in the neighborhood and the city's woeful lack of green space in general. Only in Jakarta, perhaps, is it possible to encounter a busy graveyard.

At some point though (and fairly soon according to estimates that I have read in the paper) the city will run out of graveyard space and then we will have a real problem on our hands. I suppose everyone could convert to Hinduism and then we could send floating pyres down the Ciliwung.

In my country, a group called the Natural Burial Society has cracked the space problem in an environmentally friendly way by interring its members out in the countryside. The burial sites are unmarked by actual graves or headstones and the dead are placed in biodegradable coffins or simple shrouds and thus do not intrude on the landscape. However, a memorial is often engraved on a nearby tree. This strikes me as a rather humane and dignified return to the soil. Why not feed a tree with your remains and perpetuate the great cycle of life? Be green even in death! Worth considering when you learn that each year, 22,500 cemeteries across the United States bury approximately:
30 million board feet (70,000 m³) of hardwood coffins
90,272 tons of steel (in coffins)
14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
2,700 tons of copper and bronze (coffins again)
1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
827,060 US gallons (3,130 m³) of embalming fluid, which most commonly includes formaldehyde and which damages the environment.

Perhaps this could be tried here and we could thus solve the green space problem and the graves crisis at one stroke. Any vacant plot of land currently in the crosshairs of avaricious shopping mall developers could be filled with corpses and grass could be seeded on the top. We'd all get a nice park to enjoy and the builders couldn't move in for fear of being accused of disrespecting the dead and desecrating graves. Quite an elegant solution I think, although no doubt one completely incompatible with both local religious sensibilities and capitalist realities.

Myself? I'd like to be buried face up in a window flower box in Beyonce's apartment. The thought of her holding a watering can over me in her nightie is a constant comfort during my long, dark night of the soul and helps me to come to terms with my own mortality.