If the afterlife really exists, do people have to pay different amounts of money to enter the so-called next world?
Apparently the answer is yes in Indonesia, a country where the income gap between the rich and the poor continues to rise.
Data from the Central Statistics Agency on the distribution of income revealed that in 1999, the top 20 percent of income earners accounted for 40.57 percent of total household income. This figure went up significantly to 48.52 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, the middle 40 percent of income earners showed the opposite, holding 37.77 percent of total family income in 1999, and lowering to 34.73 percent last year. The same trend has also been shown with the poor, which accounted for 40 percent of Indonesia’s economy. Their contribution to total household income went down from 21.66 percent in 1999 to 16.85 percent in 2011.
Such statistics have created diverse economic power that has led to different lifestyles for each class. How much people earn determines how they dress, what and where they eat, where they go to school, how they enjoy their spare time and, in the end, how and where they want to be buried.
Amazingly, different kinds of services are available in this country to cater to the needs of people from different economic levels, including everyone’s final wish to have a proper funeral.
A decent burial for the poor means a simple funeral ceremony in a public cemetery, which, according to regulations, only costs families Rp 100,000 (US$10.60) to use a plot for the first time.
Meanwhile, for the haves, the options vary. The fortunate can opt to lie forever either in a public cemetery that offers first-class spots for families willing to pay additional fees, or the luxurious cemetery parks that have begun to spring up all over the country.
The wealthy, for example, can go to San Diego Hills (SDH) in Karawang, 25 kilometers from the capital. Leading property company Lippo Karawaci built the cemetery in 2006 on a 500-hectare parcel of land that can house up to 5 million.
SDH has become the final resting place for many prominent people, from businessmen and high-ranking officials to celebrities.
Former health minister Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih and renowned businessmen Sudwikatmono and Soedarpo Sastrosatomo are buried there, with others buying private complexes for their families at fantastic prices that can reach billions of rupiah.
The most expensive burial site is called “Peak of The Peak”. The 200-square-meter plot of land was purchased by the family of mining magnate Jusuf Merukh at a staggering Rp 6.3 billion ($667,800), according to information collected by The Jakarta Post during a tour of SDH.
That figure was later confirmed by SDH director Suziany Japardy, who said her company sold the most expensive plot at Rp 32 million per square meter.
Near Jusuf’s space are burial sites that, according to a brochure, are sold at price tags of up to almost Rp 2 billion.
If SDH is not prestigious enough, Taman Kenangan Lestari (Lestari Memorial Park or LMP), only a five-minute drive from SDH, is another option.
Malaysian-based NV Multi Corporation has been running LMP since 2003. Its biggest and most expensive gravesite is an area of 3,000 square meters with a value of not less than Rp 12 billion.
Despite skyrocketing prices, these companies say they are upbeat about the future of the business, citing growing demand from the upper and middle classes because of Indonesia’s improving economy the past few years.
Apart from economic factors, sociologist Johannes Frederick Warouw believes that a sense of pride has also played a significant part in supporting this trend.
“There is some necessity of the rich to show their status during funerals,” the expert from the University of Indonesia said.
He pointed out that these kind of needs have propelled what he cited as the funeral business in Indonesia. The business is not only related to high-end cemeteries, but also other supporting facilities from florists and funeral ceremonies to tomb procurement.
It is known that the tombs used at SDH and LMP are imported directly from China.
The blooming exclusive cemetery park business, according to Johannes, has also been supported by the absence of proper cemetery management by the authorities in Indonesia.
It is common knowledge that public cemeteries in Indonesia are badly run, and a corrupt system has left most of the graves in poor condition. Scenes of gravesites covered with wild grass or animals like goats or chickens entering cemetery compounds are common at most cemetaries run by the government.
If families do not want the graves of their loved ones ending up like that, they are required to pay additional fees that can reach up to the millions of rupiah.
Such miserable conditions along with the bureaucracy have forced people to turn away to better-managed cemetery complexes even though they come with much higher prices.
Sixty-seven-year-old Bunyamin Wibisono is one of those that took that step. To avoid the complicated procedures at public cemeteries, the man chose to bury his wife, Yanti Hariharti, at SDH last year.
“I needed [it] fast but they could not give me [anything] right away,” he said, referring to the Karet Bivak public cemetery management in Central Jakarta.
His family also mentioned other practical reasons for choosing the place, as it had a one-time lifetime payment so they did not have to spend more money for gravesite upkeep like at public cemeteries around town that charge annual fees.
Smelling the business opportunity in the situation, other parties started to tap into this sector with many development plans in progress.
One of the country’s large Muslim organizations, the Al-Azhar foundation, is currently building what they claim is the first sharia cemetery complex in Indonesia.
Dubbed Al-Azhar Memorial Garden, the place is built on 25 hectares, also in Karawang.
One of the directors, Rachmat Effendi Achlil, explained that the cemetery was built to respond to the needs of Muslims for proper burials.
Living in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Rachmat hopes that his sharia funeral business can prosper.
The company has set aside an investment of Rp 200 billion in the project, which will officially be opened after Idul Fitri this year. It has started offering gravesites with prices ranging between Rp 20 million and Rp 200 million.
Adding to the posh cemetery fever, SDH, which targets Christians, Muslims and Chinese clients, has revealed an ambitious plan to build similar complexes in Surabaya, East Java, and Makassar, South Sulawesi.
“They will be opened in the fourth quarter of this year,” Suziany said.
To expand the market further, Suziany added that SDH also offered “affordable prices”, at Rp 8.8 million per grave.
“People will get five-star service with a public cemetery price with this offer,” Suziany said.
Commenting on the flourishing business, sociologist Johannes responded that there was nothing unusual about luxurious funeral traditions, as they have existed for centuries in the archipelago.
Not only Chinese but locals in Bali; Tapanuli, North Sumatra; and Toraja, South Sulawesi; also have funeral requirements in their cultures that can be expensive, costing families hundreds of millions of rupiah, he said, referring to other existing luxurious cemetery complexes scattered around the country.
Let’s just hope it is worth every rupiah to guarantee that one’s loved ones go to heaven and not hell, of course, if such a place truly exists.