Account of a Muslim funeral in Indonesia (Pekanbaru 2017)

My dad passed away on November 2017 in our family home, Pekanbaru, Indonesia. I am writing this account for posterity, a kind of log which hopefully will be useful for me in the future and for you, my reader, whatever your reason for reading this is. I try to write in a matter-of-fact way, and to minimize editorializing or emotional content.

My dad passed away at 5am, a few minutes after finishing his dawn prayer. I (his eldest), my mom, brother and 2 sisters were all there as well as some relatives. It was, of course, a very sad event for all of us.

After the initial emotions subsided, we began the necessary processes for his funeral. Unlike some other cultures where funeral wouldn’t happen before many days, in the Islamic tradition it is preferred to bury the deceased as soon as possible.

We made calls to some close friends and relatives to break the news (they would disseminate the news to even more friends and relatives). Both my parents are from Kamang Hilir, about 5 hours by car from Pekanbaru, and many of our extended families there left for Pekanbaru that early morning.

One my mother’s sisters lived just 15 minutes away from our home. Her family knew many of our neighbors (they used to live in the same neighborhood), and her husband (my uncle) was often involved in community events, so once they arrived, he emerged as the de-facto coordinator of the funeral process. Initially, I was thinking about getting supplies and arranging logistics for the funeral rituals and burial, but he told me not to worry and explained that “the community” (i.e. our neighbors) would usually take care of it, in accordance to the Islamic principle that the funeral of a Muslim was the responsibility of not just the immediate family, but of the Muslim community where he lives.

He directed us to clear the living room area because “soon everyone would be here”, and then woke up the Ketua RT and other neigborhood notables. Before we know it, dozens of neighbors (whom we knew) arrived to volunteer, helped with cleaning the house and putting away stuff, brought the funeral supplies, set up (open-air) tents and portable chairs on the street in front of our house, and directed traffic/parking for the incoming funeral attendees.

Meanwhile, we decided on the funeral time and place. One of our neighbors secured a funeral lot less than 1 km from our house, and we went for it–over the objection of a few Kamang Hilir relatives who wanted him to be buried in his birth village. We decided the funeral prayer and the burial would take place immediately after Dhuhr (midday prayer) at the mosque. As the eldest, I would lead (be the imam for) the funeral prayer (salat al-janazah).

We wrapped my dad and moved him to the living room downstairs, and our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and relatives began streaming in to say their condolences and see my dad for the last time. The immediate family (my mom, me, my siblings) were seated on the floor next to him; we met and shook hands with the guests. Everyone were very sympathetic, many offered consoling words and their help if needed. Then they waited in the tents for the funeral after noon. Since words already got out, streams of WhatsApp messages also came directly or in groups I was part of. I also took the opportunity to re-memorize the recitations for the funeral prayer that I’d lead.

At around 10.45 we proceeded with the bathing (ghusl) of the deceased, part of the Islamic funeral process. It was done in our garage. The logistics were taken care of by our neighbors–they were obviously experienced in this. They set up a platform were we laid the body down, and a hose was set up underneath it which drained water to the ditch (selokan).  There were buckets of water and other supplies as well. A blind covered the garage, so that people could not see this private affair from outside. Me, my brother, my uncle, and some of my dad’s nephews cleaned and bathed my dad, as well as a couple trusted religiously-learned neighbors to ensure that it was ritually correct. Then we shrouded the body, and put him on the bier in our front porch.

Here everyone gathered, and a small function was held. My uncle, representing the family, gave a short speech, formally announcing the passing of my dad, asking for the attendees’s forgiveness and prayers for my dad and thanking everyone for coming. Then there were three eulogy-like speeches, first from our Ketua RW, then from one of our mosque’s notables, and then from a representative of my dad’s University. They praised my dad as someone with integrity, discipline, and spoke of his eagerness to help others and contribute to society. Our family had been one of the first to move in the neighborhood, and my dad had played no small role in the nascent community as well as in the founding and early management of our neighborhood mosque. Then a prayer (du’a) led by one of the regular imams from the mosque. Throughout all this, people stood in our yard and the street in front of it, under the heat of Pekanbaru sun just before noon.

At the end of this function, it was less than half an hour before Dhuhr time. People began to walk to the mosque, which was literally across the street from our home.  My dad was also moved there in the bier. I managed a quick lunch–our neighbors were gracious enough to bring us food,–made my ablution (wudu) and went to the mosque. It was not yet Dhuhr time, but the mosque was already overflowing. This was my childhood mosque and I had attended funeral prayers for other people here, and I didn’t remember the crowd had ever been this big. I think this was due to the vast respect people had for my dad. I couldn’t find space to sit, so I stood in the back until a mosque elder called me to the front, given that I would be leading the funeral prayer. At a few minutes past 12 the adhan for Dhuhr was called.

The Dhuhr prayer was performed in the packed mosque–some worshippers had to pray outside. The regular mosque imam led it and I prayed in the first row. After Dhuhr, the imam announced a standard reminder for everyone about the movements and recitations in a funeral prayer, and then we prayed– I was the imam.

After the prayers, a funeral ambulance waited outside the mosque. We carried my dad’s bier there. With the bier inside, there was only space for a few people, which was filled by me, my brother, and few other family friends/relatives. On the way to the cemetery, I saw rows of cars of funeral-attendees parked on the streets and empty fields in our neighborhood. But other than our ambulance, other funeral attendees walked to the cemetery, except for one other car which carried an elderly cousin of my dad’s who couldn’t walk anymore.

At the cemetery, a grave was already dug, and a ladder was set up. My uncle, my brother and my uncle went down the grave. Others brought my dad’s body and carefully handed him to us, then we laid him down. Then we went up and everyone began to bury the grave. I managed to shovel a few scoops before someone offered to relieve me. It was quite a physical job that needs a lot of people to help.

Then we planted a marker on the grave, and we stayed at the grave and said prayers before the ambulance took us back home. At home lunch was prepared for me and my family, and others returning from the burial were offered food at the house next door (who happened to also be our Ketua RT), prepared by volunteers from the neighborhood. This was a most welcome offer because it was lunch time and people had been standing and walking in the hot sun.

After lunch, most of the guest asked their leaves and went home, except for close relatives and friends who still stayed. The Kamang Hilir relatives mostly began arriving now, except for those who rode with my dad’s brother–they had managed to arrive well before Dhuhr by leaving very early in the morning and probably taking liberties with the speed limit. In the afternoon, I took some of the out-of-town arrivals–who weren’t there during the burial–to visit the grave.

In our neighborhood, it is customary that in the there would be recitations of Yasin and Tahlil for three consecutive nights at the bereaved house. This practice is somewhat controversial, as some argues that it constitutes a forbidden ritual innovation in Islam. My mom was not a fan of this practice for a different reason – the whole recitation would be in Arabic, and most attendees would just read (or sleep) through the ~1 hour without much reflection. So we would skip this practice. But our home would still be open for visitors in the next several days, and at night there would be speakers delivering reflections about death (mostly from religious point of view) as well as related topic.

Visitors did come at nearly all times of day in the next few days. Most looked for my mom, who was both entertained but also exhausted by the guests. She tried to manage short naps between visits. Thankfully we did not need to worry about food, because our neighbors sent delicious meals for us (and our relatives who stayed over) several times a day. In fact we often had more food than we need, and we sent some to our less affluent neighbors. We really appreciated the neighbors for arranging the food.

The peak for the visits was at nights, when we had the speakers after Maghrib prayers. The house was full, as well as the chairs and tent that still remained on the street. The mosque people brought microphones and loudspeakers for the guest outside to listen to the speakers. The guests were there until it was time for Isha. The mosque across the street had noticeably more worshippers than usual, as visitors made their Isha prayers there. On the third night, by popular request, we had light food (100% brought by attendees, so we did not have to prepare anything), and the timing was moved after Isha so that there would be time for light socializing after the lecture.

During these days some close relatives (if their schedule permitting) stayed with us, including some from Kamang Hilir. They helped with chores, entertaining guests, as well as of course consoling us. I really appreciated the consoling part, amid this sad mood it was so nice to hear jokes, or see little kids playing, in order to take our minds off the sadness. My uncle and some of my cousins cracked jokes which made us laugh so hard that I half-worried about what random passerbies would think about hearing laughs that hard from a bereaved house. Also, in a Minangkabau family, sleeping arrangements weren’t a problem. Crashing a relative’s house is very common, hosts don’t usually mind the several extra families overnighting and guests are usually content sleeping in the carpet if no room is available.

In the next following days, visitors & relatives ramped down, as well as the meal delivery. I stayed for several more days to be with my family and to help take care of administrative stuff. Life slowly returned to normal, even though it would never be the same..




Account of a Muslim funeral in Indonesia (Pekanbaru 2017)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s