In a recent 10-day period, I made three day trips from KL to Penang and back. The first two were to visit a sick relative at the Penang General Hospital. The last one was for her funeral.
She died at 9pm. By 2pm the next day she was already buried or, in the local lingo, had been “simpan” or stored or put away. The Malays, and Muslims in general, don’t hang around when it comes to burying their dead.
Last year, a dear aunty died at the age of 93 from Covid-19 complications. She was very quickly “simpan” by people in full PPEs, as was the procedure then. It all happened so quickly I didn’t have the chance to be there.
The last funeral before that was my mother’s in 2000. I was overseas on business, and unfortunately wasn’t able to be there either.
No, this is not a story about loss or love or life lessons or whatever. This is a story about funerals.
The relative who died wasn’t a blood relative, though I’d known her since my childhood. I’m sad at her passing. I wouldn’t say every passing of every relative is sad for everybody all the time, but we know when we grieve more, or less, or not at all.
The relative was buried in one of the most distinctive cemeteries in the country. It’s our old kampung cemetery of hundred-plus years, one that I remember for its huge, spooky trees, which was flanked by impenetrable nipah swamps in a rather remote part of the kampung.
Then, the government requisitioned almost the entire kampung 50 years ago for the expansion of the Penang airport. Most villagers, our family included, were resettled nearby. The mosque beside the cemetery was torn down and a replacement built.
The foundation of the old mosque is still there. It’s only slightly bigger than a badminton court, even if in my memory it used to loom huge. As we got bigger, many childhood things got smaller.
But the cemetery remains. It’s now within the airport compound and surrounded by tall security fences. When landing at Penang airport from the south, you can see it to the right of the aircraft, just before touchdown
If you see groups of people in that fenced enclosure and wonder who they were and why they’re there – well, now you know.
My relative’s remains were at my family’s house for mourners to come and pay their respects. It was then taken to the nearby mosque for prayers, and then on a short journey by a hearse to the cemetery.
In the old days the coffin would be carried there on the villagers’ shoulders in a procession whose size depended on the deceased’s socio-economic status (and family size).
Most kampungs have a hierarchy and an organisation to handle fardu kifayah matters – society’s responsibility towards ensuring a well-running community, which of course includes disposing of the dead.
There are grave diggers assigned to do such work, though luckily our society doesn’t look down on such people.
We’re also rather unsentimental about deaths and funerals. Our attitude is driven by the belief you live, then you die, while those still living move on. As callous and cold-hearted as it may sound to many, it sounds just about right to me.
We all face loss in our life. They say the two inevitable things in life are death and taxes. Given that some people are too poor (and some too rich) to pay taxes, I’d say the only inevitable thing in life is actually death – and perhaps crooked politicians too.
As no human or society today can get away from crooked politicians, I’d rewrite that old aphorism to now say “in this world, nothing is certain except death and crooked politicians”. (With thanks, and many apologies, to Benjamin Franklin, who must be turning in his own grave right now).
Our cemetery hasn’t expanded over the years, and in fact may have shrunk a bit because it no longer is able to grow beyond the airport fences.
But even back in those childhood years, I remember attending funerals and seeing bones of old burials being removed, the new coffin put in and the bones later reburied beside it.
That didn’t feel weird to me then, and doesn’t feel so now. If it does make you feel weird, you should ask yourself why – and, no, you probably don’t have a good answer for that.
People everywhere nowadays are looking for better ways of “simpaning” our mortal remains. Burials take up too much precious land while cremations are not environmentally friendly. People are even trying out composting of human remains now.
Perhaps the humble kampungs may have found the answer long ago. Bodies are wrapped in plain white cloth according to Islamic rites and buried in wooden coffins. No chemicals or metal are used, except perhaps for some nails and rosewater. Nature then does what nature does.
This relative was buried in between my parents’ graves. Their tombstones were temporarily removed whilst the new grave was dug. The grave diggers knew their job well: the very fresh grave of my late auntie was nearby but not disturbed.
We sat under some shady trees while the final prayers were said. A strong, fresh breeze blowing in from the sea kept us cool and comfortable.
Every few minutes a plane would land, close enough that some of the more attentive passengers on the right side could have looked out and wondered what was happening with this group of people within the airport compound.
Again, now you know.
My ancestors are buried there, some without tombstones. They believed that once you’re gone, you’re gone and the living should let live. They’d have flowers planted on their graves, or at most plain rocks from river beds as tombstones.
I used to know that under a certain tree lie some great and greater grandparents. But the huge trees are now all gone, as with the flowers and perhaps the river rocks too.
Some day, when the cemetery has become too crowded, we may need some apps and QR codes to find the final resting place of our loved ones. But that’ll be long after my time, and I’ll let others worry about it.
When the funeral was over, it was time to replace my parents’ tombstones – simple pieces of rocks with some engraved details in Arabic. The grave diggers knew where to place them, and we helped them.
I lifted the last, heavy tombstone and thumped it into the small hole and then packed the hole with the rich, loamy sandy soil. That’s where it’ll stay, at least until the time another nearby burial happens.
I can only hope that whoever replaces the tombstones next will do it with the same respect, remembrance, but also gusto and energy. Most likely it will be a relative, as that small patch contains our family’s unofficial burial plots.
Then we left. There were mango trees everywhere, many with fruits. Some wondered whether it’s OK to pluck them. A wise man nearby said the cemetery is public land – wakaf in Arabic – and everything there is for public use.
I’ll remember that next time. I’ll bring a box, assuming I’m not in one.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.