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Requiem In Pacem

Farewell, Old Man. Though I never knew your name, you were a friendly face in an anonymous land.

I have lived in this neighborhood, in west Jakarta, for six months now. I have gotten to know a good number or people here, some who cart me around town, others who sell me things at the store and still others just because. The Old Man was one of the latter. We never formally introduced ourselves, just used the honorific Bapak (sir) when talking to each other. We would pass in the neighborhood and pause to exchange niceties and maybe a little news. We discussed the weather, girls (he had two wives) and other pressing topics. At 4 a.m., as I smoked at the gate and tried to pry open my brain for the day, he would pass on his morning walk, stop and smile, and say good morning to me.

The Old Man moved very slowly. He suffered from diabetes and appeared to have had a stroke at some point, as his left arm just hung by his side. He walked ever so slowly with a shuffling gait and always had a look on his face as if he were thinking of a really good joke just then. He was of Chinese decent, but had converted to Islam when he marries his first wife, a "local." Between his two wives, he had eight children. The youngest still only 10 or 11, the oldest already a middle-aged man. He was about as big as my thumb and looked as if a stiff breeze would carry him away. I don't know his actual age, but looking at him, I'd guess nine years older than God.

When I moved here, he was one of the first people I met. We passed in the street and exchanged pleasantries. He asked me where I was from and what I did. I gathered he was retired from the restaurant business and spent his days wandering the neighborhood in order to stay moving. Our relationship was like that, a chance meeting in the street or on the lane, a warm hello and a smile, a wave at a distance, a wink and a nod in a mildly bawdy conversation about girls. He always wore batik and his black muslim hat indicating that he was a pilgrim who had completed the Five Pillar of Faith. Despite his age and infirmity, he eyes were always bright, his smile easy and his greetings warm and genuine.

This morning he had sever stomache pains from gas. His first wife had taken him to the hospital, but apparently the stress of it all was more than he could bear and he gave up the ghost. It's often hard to get a clear handle on what was ailing someone since in Indonesia it is deeply entangled with mysticism and such. From the looks of things, though, he was just ready. His wife said he had spent the past few days cleaning and repairing many things in the house, putting things in order and taking care of some nagging projects. I assume that it was an unusual state of affairs as she felt compelled to mention it. He had spent yesterday with his youngest children working at the fish tanks on the front porch, where he earned extra money by raising catfish, called lele, for local restaurants.

After he died, his body was carried back to the house and placed in state. A low bench was placed diagonally in the sitting room and his body was laid on top. The family then bathed his body and began a ritual using linen strips to bind various parts of his body together, and to fill his orifae. The hands are bound across the chest, the feet together, both ends of the digestive tract are plugged. The eyes are covered and then the whole body is draped with an elaborate cloth. A small hand-written sign displays the entire name of the deceased. In Indonesia, this is usually the only time in one's life that the entire name is used. The women and children sit on the floor behind the body, while mourners and well-wishers enter on the other side. The men typically gather outside to sit and talk. A canopy is rented along with chairs and extra lighting, so the outdoor space is protected from the rain.

When one enters a muslim home, it is customary to say, "ala-salaam alaikum." The mourner approaches the widow and gives the customary greeting of holding the heels of the hands together with the fingers opened and lightly touching the hand of the woman. A gift is typically offered in the form of cash in an envelope. The usual amount is 50,000 or 100,000 rupiah, or about US$5-10. After a brief discussion involving the story of the passing and fond memories of the deceased, the mourners will leave the house and either join the gathering outside or go home.

According to tradition, once you return home, you must change clothes and wash the hands, face and feet. Nothing elaborate, just a good rinsing. You cannot enter the living space of the hosue until this is done, so before you leave, you have placed a change of clothes in easy access.

In muslim tradition, the deceased must be buried within 24 hours, so tomorrow morning, the body will be carried to the cemetery by family and friends, and buried, the head pointing to Mecca.

From what I knew of the Old Man, he was a calm and gentle soul; in a swirling sea of hectic city life, he was an eddy of quiet happiness. The relationship we had was not profound but it had a closeness of its own. Our brief meetings and conversations lightened my load a bit, and maybe gave him the same. I will certainly miss the morning wave and smile, or the excuse, no matter how brief, to slow down during the day. In dying, he also taught me something about culture and ritual that I had not experienced before, and now I have shared it with you.

Even in death, his smile and his wave are rippling into the world, and into the Universe.

We should all be so lucky.

Dengan kesedihan, tuan.

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