Jakarta has dozens of public cemeteries, known as TPU — Tempat Pemakaman Umum. While most are fairly nondescript places that are best avoided until your expiration date, some are very well known, such as TPU Tanah Kusir in Bintaro, near Pondok Indah Mall in South Jakarta.
At 52 hectares, this cemetery is one of the largest in the city. It was a residential area until the mid-’70s, when the land was appropriated by then Jakarta Governor Ali Sadikin, whose administration was marked by aggressive municipal development. Fittingly, Ali was laid to rest in Tanah Kusir in 2008. One of the defining features of Tanah Kusir is that it is split into northern and southern portions by a major road.
Former grave digger Uci Sanusi said that one surprising fact about the cemetery is that there are more Christians than Muslims buried there. Sanusi, a 20-year cemetery veteran who now works as a field supervisor, added that Buddhists are a distant third in the cemetery’s religious makeup. The residents are grouped according to religion, Sanusi said, in an effort to make it more convenient for visitors coming to pray for their loved ones.
Another quirk, according to Sanusi: Betawis, the native residents of Jakarta, seldom bury their dead in public cemeteries, since most have private family burial plots.
“So most of the deceased here are people from other parts of Java who eventually reside in the city,” Sanusi said.
Those making arrangements may want to look elsewhere, based on Sanusi’s assessment of Tanah Kusir’s capacity. According to him, the northern half was full by 2000, and the southern portion is just about at its limit. A keen observer might spot a strip of empty land along the Pesanggrahan River, which serves as the cemetery’s western border, but Sanusi said burial there was impossible.
“Usually the diggers dig about two meters deep for a grave, but over there, near the creek, water may seep out even when you’re still only one meter deep. This happens especially during the rainy season.”
One solution for the chronic lack of space has emerged, though it may strike some as a little grim, even for a cemetery. Many families, Sanusi said, in an attempt to keep their relatives close together, have resorted to stacking their loved ones’ coffins in single graves.
Sanusi said that the most coffins he had ever heard of being stacked in one grave was four, but conceivably, plot owners are only limited by how deep they can dig. “There’s really no official regulation about the maximum number of stacks you can make, so if the family members are willing, and the condition is possible, so be it.”
Tanah Kusir currently has 22 civil servant officers to take care of day-to day-operations, less than half of the 48 workers the cemetery employed when space was ample and business was more brisk.
“Most have retired due to old age,” said Sanusi, who is one of the senior workers, and who also saw his brother buried there.
A constant complaint surrounding the funeral and internment industry centers on the seemingly absurdly high price of death. But Sanusi said that for all the complaints he hears, many people just don’t understand the services that go along with the administrative fee, which covers rent for three years and ranges from Rp 40,000 to Rp 100,000 ($4 to $10), based on location of the burial plot and ease of access for visitors. Plots closer to the road are seen as more valuable, as visitors don’t have to walk far, while those in more remote corners of the cemetery are discounted. For the financially destitute, there is free accommodation available.
The problem, Sanusi said, was when family members asked the cemetery to provide the supplies for a basic funeral, such as flowers along with a headstone, and then reacted with anger and surprise when given a bill for the services that was beyond the initial administrative fee.
“But that fee is only for the digging service and the rent for three years,” he said. “You see, some people don’t want to bother in preparing other necessities like the headstone and equipment needed for the funeral procession, like stools, tents, flower arrangements and even portable air conditioners, to make funeral attendees more comfortable. And we do offer such services here, but of course it’s not covered in the administration fee.”
He said that it was important to talk over funeral arrangements with cemetery workers so that families had a clear understanding of what they were getting and what the cost would be.
But the question of cemetery rent turns up one last, burning question: What happens if a burial plot’s rent expires? Is the deceased evicted? Sanusi said that it is a common problem, and that most of the time rents expired because family members forgot to pay, or just assumed that no one would ever dare dig up a coffin simply because the rent was late. That assumption, Sanusi said, is incorrect. Failure to pay rent gives the government the authority to remove the deceased and rent the space to someone else.
“Some of the graves here have been overdue for six years, and for those that were removed, we often felt sorry that we moved the unearthed remains and buried them somewhere else, like by the side of the road,” Sanusi said.
“We can’t use any headstones, of course. The tough part is when years later, the families visit, and to their surprise we tell them the bad news that their loved ones were moved years ago to an unmarked corner over there,” Sanusi said.