on Javanese Funeral and Being a Neighbor

Mrs. Ruwaedi, our elderly widow neighbor whose house was in front of ours, passed away yesterday morning. As the custom dictates in Javanese culture, we’re required to attend the funeral ceremony in her house and if possible to go to the graveyard for final respect. And it is required for everybody in the neighborhood, particularly those who are of age (above 17 years old), married, or live in their own house. So, a Javanese funeral usually consists of hundreds of guests since everyone in the neighborhood will attend.

Now, there is a big difference of requirements for funeral attendance depending on the distance of your house to the house of the departed or in which sub-neighborhood you’re living (we call the sub-neighborhood as ‘RT’ or ‘Rukun Tetangga’, a cluster of 10-20 houses). If we live a bit far from the house of the departed (say, in a different alley) or we’re living in different RT, we just need to spend an hour or two, attending the funeral ceremony. All we need to do is being there, sitting around, enjoying a glass of tea or water and refreshments, chit-chatting with the other guests, while waiting for the body to be taken to the graveyard.

The ceremony is various, depending on the religious affiliation of the departed. In Christian or Catholic tradition, the ceremony will involve a Mass led by a priest or a pastor and the body will be put in a coffin. If the departed is a Muslim, the ceremony will involve of a prayer, led by an ‘Imam’ and the body is wrapped in a cloth. If you’re not a follower of those religions, you don’t attend the prayer session. The only thing you attend is when the body is about to be taken to the graveyard. Another requirement is to give a bit of money to the family left. We have a system of giving two envelopes containing cash donation: one is for ‘Papayon’ (abbreviation of ‘Paguyuban Pangrukti Layon’, Jav. Language), the community organization which takes care of overall funeral matters, such as preparing the grave, food for the guests, ceremony, etc.; second one is for the family themselves. The envelope for Papayon is prepared by the organization. In our neighborhood (or we call it ‘RW’ or ‘Rukun Warga’, a group of 5-10 RTs), the envelope is a blue 10×5 cm envelope with the name of the head of the house and which RT we belong (in ours it’s Yudi’s name and RT 5). We’re supposed to pay Rp 2,000 for the Papayon envelope. That money will go to Papayon to pay for the cost of graveyard (about Rp 200,000 per piece of land), the fee of the gravediggers (about Rp 5,000/digger, for 10-15 persons), the food for the guests, the cloth or coffin to wrap the body, and other expenses. The other envelope is our personal donation, and the range of donation is Rp 5,000-Rp 50,000, depending on our preference and our financial ability. Our house personal philosophy is to give more on funeral because it’s the time of sadness and we have to show more sympathy in such times. Therefore, most of the time, the family of the departed doesn’t have to spend a lot of money for funeral. The community takes care of the cost. This is a good support system, considering that not all families are well-off and have saving for emergency situation like this. We also have similar donation system for other occasions such as weddings, sickness, and circumcision for boys. We’re required to give envelopes to the family who held the ceremony.

Now, in the case of Mrs. Ruwaedi, we couldn’t just attend the ceremony and left after the funeral. We live in front of her house so our houses are just separated by a 2.5 meter alley. Jalu went to visit her from time to time (mostly to watch and play in her fish pond) and every two or three day I went to her house to shop for groceries (the grocery lady visits her house everyday bringing fresh vegetables and herbs for us to buy – a very practical practice for housewives who are too busy to go to the market or shopping centers). They have used our house in the past to house their relatives during their daughter’s wedding ceremony. Although we don’t live in the same RT, our families are very close to Javanese standards. Therefore, an attendance to the funeral is not enough. There is another requirement that we must meet. We must help out or ‘rewang’ in Javanese term (it can be translated literally as ‘helping’).

How did we help out?

For the males, it involves preparing extra tents in front of the house for the guests, setting up chairs (our RT has ‘public’ portable plastic chairs that the family can borrow. The family just needs to donate certain amount of money to the RT’s petty cash, usually Rp 5,000. Other items that our RT owns are glasses, plates, spoons, mats; very useful if your house held an occasion), digging the grave (My dad is one of the persons who always volunteered in the past, so he had been a ‘professional’ digger during his active years. Thus, the money given to the gravediggers as I mentioned above is just for appreciation, rather than for their professional service), and other errands like buying stuffs (candies and refreshments for the guests, flowers, etc.). Yudi, being a male, helped out by being a driver for the ladies in charge for food preparation. My Dad was busy with the tents and the chairs (He didn’t dig graves anymore because he’s too old now, 58 years old).

Tempe (fermented soy bean), uncooked
pic from Makantime.comLodeh Dish
pic by Evil Jungle PrincePandanus plant
pics by C. McKenney
For the females (and that includes me), we are involved in preparing the food for the guests. Mind you, there are many kinds of meals we prepare for many rituals of the funeral. There is food for the family members and their relatives (they’re grieving so they will be too sad to prepare food for themselves), food for the gravediggers, food for the people who pray, food for the evening prayer, etc. We cooked lots and lots of rice (our main staple in Indonesia), prepared five to six different dishes (noodles, chicken curry, fried tempe and tofu, veggie salad with coconut chili paste, beef stew, boiled egg, lodeh, shrimp crackers and I can’t remember many more), prepared pots and pots of tea, bought donuts and candies. There were also ladies who prepared the flower arrangements. They made strings of rose petals and pandanus leaves to be placed around the body or the coffin. They prepared the decorated flower baskets filled with rose petals, yellowed rice grains, and coins to be spread along the way to the graveyard.

 

Now, this is the first time I was involved in a community activity like that. My aunt, who lives behind our house, offered her kitchen to be the ‘headquarter’ of food preparation. Who decided that her house to be used? No one did. I guess it’s just natural that her kitchen to be used because she had a large kitchen and living room that can accommodate 10 people working (it used to be my grandmother’s house and she had 4 kids and a small restaurant to run), and she lived close by the departed house. Plus, she inherited my grandmother’s large collection of kitchen utensils, pans and pots, so preparing 500 meals is not a problem. Another decisive factor is because my uncle is the head of the RT and my aunt, consequently, is the head of the ladies in the RT. We have a rule that she would be the head of ‘rewang’ team whenever there is a funeral in our RT. As my house is between her house and Mrs. Ruwaedi’s house, it was also logical that my house would become a ‘passage way’ where we transported the meals to and fro. Since my aunt only has two stoves, they also used my stoves for cooking rice. They also asked if the family members and the relatives could use my living room to have meals as the house of the departed would be too crowded. This, of course, we gladly agreed.

What were my responsibilities in the team? Well, as this is my first time, and I was the youngest among the ladies, and you know from my previous posting that I am not a good cook, my responsibilities were those of the trivial ones. I made pots of teas, washed the pans, pots, or whatever thrown to me, made sure that water was available at all times, took water jugs from one of the ladies’ houses, made chili paste, carried pots and pans here and there, served bread and teas to the ladies working with the flower arrangements, etc. In short, I took orders from everybody and gave hands wherever required.

It’s an interesting experience for me in general. I learn that I should be sensitive to others in terms of deciding what my responsibilities are and how to deal with different kinds of people. Literally there was no one appointed formally to be in charge of the overall operation. My aunt was responsible for the money for funding the cooking, but it was only because she’s the head of the ladies in our RT. When it came to who’s doing what, everybody seemed to know what to do because they have been doing this many times in the past. But I did notice that usually the oldest lady is the one who’s issuing orders to the younger ladies. This may be because she has more experiences than the others. Since I was the apprentice, I listened to Mrs. Maria, the oldest lady, and what she ordered me to do. I was also sensitive to other ladies’ order or business. When I saw that somebody needed a hand or ordered me to do something, I would readily offer one.

It was also a good chance to exchange cooking tips and gossips, which I welcomed and enjoyed thoroughly. There were about 10-15 ladies during the rewang and it’s a good chance to know each of them. This is good because I don’t have a lot of chances to gather with them and I often skip the monthly ladies’ meeting due to my job. I don’t socialize a lot and it tends to create negative feeling from the neighbors if you don’t socialize with them often. The rewang is an opportunity to unite with the neighbors and grow solidarity among members of the community.

Next time there is a rewang, I think I will be there. Besides, I still need to learn how to cook ‘dendeng kelem’, my childhood favorite meal ever, from the ladies. It’s a special food for me, because I only ate it during special occasions. I don’t think I’m going to master it quickly, but hey, it’s always good to be able to nibble food here and there during rewang and the conversation is always enjoyable.

See you at the next rewang!

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