Wed, Nov 06, 2019 - Page 9 News List

In Jakarta’s cemeteries, the dead are being stacked six deep

What was meant to be a stopgap solution to a shortage of land for burial in the Indonesian capital has sparked family rifts and hit the poor the hardest

By Elle Hunt  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

At Karet Bivak Cemetery in Jakarta, the neat rows of headstones extend as far as the eye can see, seeming to sprout into skyscrapers at the horizon.

Driving his scooter through after Friday prayers, a friendly Muslim man wearing white robes and a taqiyah cap seems at peace with his fate.

“This is my future home,” he says, leaning on the handlebars and indicating the graves. “Your home, my home — everybody’s home.”

That is no longer the case. Spread over 16 hectares of a former rubber plantation, Karet Bivak is Jakarta’s second-largest cemetery — and, like an increasing number across the city, it is full. Authorities froze new plots in November 2017 to prevent overcrowding. For now and the foreseeable future, the only way to be buried here is for your body to be stacked on top of another one.

Up to six people, typically from the same family, are being buried in a space originally designated for one. There are now about 100,000 bodies in 48,400 plots.

It is a stopgap solution to a shortage of burial land in a city where overcrowding above ground is increasingly extending below it. Of 84 public cemeteries, a quarter have stopped licensing new plots, limiting burials to those with written permission to join an existing one.

Meanwhile, the number of cemeteries stacking bodies, known as makam tumpeng — “overlapping graves” — was reported as 16 in August, and is now confirmed at 20.

Bodies can be stacked alongside or on top of each other, according to the municipal policy, with a minimum of 1m between them. Plots must also be at least three years old before another body can be added, by which point only a skeleton remains.

The head of Karet Bivak, Saiman — who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name — says that stacking is no issue for the dead: Problems only arise among the living.

There have been graveside conflicts when one of the bereaved has realized too late that the deceased is joining an occupied plot, he says.

Family rifts have also been weaponized by the requirement for written permission from the license holder.

One woman refused to allow her late ex-husband use of the family plot because he had remarried, Jakarta Forestry Agency funeral service unit Ricky Putra says.

In another case, a man wanted to be buried on top of his uncle, but his cousin blocked him due to jealousy.

As the overcrowding issue emerged about three years ago, the department has worked hard to educate the public about its stacking solution, Putra says.

As well as articles in the press and social media, Karet Bivak hung banners in the lead-up to Ramadan — the busiest time of year for Muslim cemeteries, when thousands make a pilgrimage to loved ones’ graves.

Jakarta’s high population density means that most public cemeteries are boxed in by buildings, with regulations further preventing their expansion. In south Jakarta, the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery is converting its gardens into graves, to expand its capacity by 900.

“It is very hard to get land for a cemetery, or even development of infrastructure,” says Rangi Faridha, an architect on the city planning and development board. “There are many factors, but the biggest one is that people don’t want to sell their land.”

Long before they started stacking, cemeteries also dug up “expired” graves, ones where licenses had been allowed to lapse. About 20,000 plots at Karet Bivak were freed up in this way — but as with stacking, this policy can only do so much to meet demand.

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