Missing you: A woman hugs a tombstone in Utan Kayu public cemetery in East Jakarta. JP/P.J. LeoRecently, my brother John Franklin Risakotta died. He was 42 years old. John, my wife’s younger brother, lived with us for about five years, including the past three months after he married Ely. John was a gentle soul who did not find life easy but loved to joke.
He and Ely worked various jobs to eke out a living. In our household he was always ready to help and supported our service in the community, especially by running errands and driving people hither and yon.
We do not know why he died. He was in good health. On the morning of his death he was joking around, playing with our 2-year-old niece, changing a flat tire for his sister-in-law and (uncharacteristically for an Indonesian man) washing the dishes.
He gave his wife a hug and kiss and went to take a shower. She found him on the bathroom floor, not breathing.
There were no signs of a heart attack or stroke and he had no known history of illness. Perhaps he was the victim of Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome or cardiac arrest. This is fairly common in young, Southeast Asian males.
His heart just stopped. God called him home. As he lay in the coffin in our living room, everyone was struck by how beautiful and peaceful he looked. Our family is now in the house of sorrow. That week we wept an ocean of tears.
How do Indonesians die? First of all, they seem to die more often. When I first arrived in Indonesia, the young, high school phys-ed teacher who taught our kids sports died of tetanus after a minor accident.
Later, the pregnant daughter of our household handyman died of tuberculosis because she couldn’t afford the medicine the doctor prescribed. Many people die of causes that would not be considered life threatening in the West.
I moved to Indonesia when I was 40 and had only attended 4 or 5 funerals in my whole life. During my past 20 years in Indonesia, it’s more like 4 or 5 funerals per year. Death seems so much closer.
Secondly, Indonesians die in community. I don’t know if the rate of death is much higher than in the West. Over the past 50 years, life expectancy in Indonesia has risen from about 40 years to almost 70 because of vastly improved nutrition, education and health care. But death is a very public event. John died around noon.
That evening and in the morning, although John is a Christian, his death was announced over the loudspeaker from our local mosque as Berita Duka, or News of Sorrow.
By the afternoon, our Muslim neighbors had already brought chairs to set up in our garden and street to accommodate the many guests who would begin to arrive.
By evening, village leaders had closed off the street and set up huge tents to keep the sun and rain off those who were already arriving to mourn.
The villagers all came to melayat, share in our mourning. People came from our Christian university, but also the Islamic university and the national university where we teach. Many came from his church and our church.
Women came from various chapters of the Indonesian Women’s Coalition (KPI) in part because John often drove KPI members for meetings, cultural events and disaster relief. Many who came had never met John, but came just because they knew us.
The funeral service and burial were held the day after his death. By that time, hundreds had passed through our house where we served them snacks and they viewed John’s body. Most left an envelope with a monetary gift to lighten the sorrow.
Thirdly, Indonesians die ecumenically. Traditionally, everyone who knows a grieving relative of a person who died will come to grieve with them, without regard for their religion, race or ethnic background.
On the night of John’s death, leaders from his church came to pray and sing around the body. Some Muslims observed and others sat outside under the tents.
The next morning, church leaders held a more formal service, followed by an ecumenical ceremony including speeches from village leaders. I shared my impressions of John’s gentleness and toughness.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” John has inherited a new earth. The coffin was closed amid unbearable lamentations. Then we pushed the coffin on a cart to the village graveyard, where a few Christian graves are interspersed with many Muslim ones.
In Indonesia, there is a disturbing growth in religious intolerance, discrimination against minorities and attempts at religious separation. Fortunately, the intolerant are still a small minority who are running against the grain of centuries of relative harmony between different religious communities. Our family, like many in Indonesia, includes both Christians and Muslims.
Fourthly, Indonesians, like people everywhere, experience great sorrow at the death of those they love. Traditionally, Indonesians of different religions hold services not only on the days of death and burial, but also 7 days, 30 days, 100 days and 1,000 days after a person dies.
It is never easy. Frankly, just days after his death, I found it hard to move, hard to breathe. I felt like I was stumbling around in darkness. I’m still not pasrah, “submitted to the will of God”. I rushed home when they found his body and vainly used CPR to try to make him breathe and start his heart. At home and all the way to the hospital: blow, pump, blow, pump. But he was gone.
My son Peter wrote, “Dad, I love you. I wish I could be there to breathe with you. I guess I am.” So that is the task of the living: to breathe.
And more than that, to breathe together.