Graveyards have a special place in my heart.
It is no secret that I get particularly excited with ideas of the dead and the undead. I practically dragged my friends to the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo to get up, close, and personal with the skulls and skeletons of past centuries. I was grinning ear-to-ear in my picture with the skeleton of a Cypriot king. But most of all, almost two years ago in Paris, I learned that graveyards are a treasure chest. At first glance it may seem like a place for mourning, but in between the tombstones are stories of lives, how they are remembered, and even celebrated. I felt joy in discovering the love and affection in Oscar Wilde’s tomb, peppered with kisses in all shades of red from pink to vermillion, and laughed knowing that Jim Morrison’s grave is gated to prevent couples from fornicating on it.
I longed to be a tombstone detective again, to unearth stories of people past and how they are remembered. Finally for my birthday I went to Museum Taman Prasasti, the remnants of a Dutch gothic cemetery in Jakarta.
It was a hot, humid day, the grey clouds hanging low and the cracking red earth eagerly anticipating the shower. There were just the two of us in the yard, where statues of women wept side by side with praying cherubs. There were names and inscriptions, but they were mostly in Dutch, and between that the profane signs spray painted on some of the outer tombs, I felt lost at first. Where are the stories, the celebration of lives?
But then, we found Soe Hok Gie’s grave.
Gie was a student activist in 1960s, whose diary inspired generation after generation of Indonesians to look past their comfort zone and take up social and political causes. He died in his twenties, not from detainment or from drugs, the fate that so often befell people with passion as his, but from inhaling poisonous gas while mountain climbing.
I thought that his grave would be the star attraction of the museum, with signs and arrows highlighting its precise location. I thought that his tombstone would be the one of the greatest, grandest around, with flowers and letters placed lovingly around it. But no, it was small and simple and quiet, tucked away between other small and simple and quiet tombstones whose names I couldn’t even read.
A small angel, her hands clasped in prayer with a somber look, stared at the quotes in his modest tombstone: “Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow.” That may be the saddest parting words to a life that I could possibly think of and my heart broke a little bit for him. But then, remembering his life and his diary, maybe that is exactly how he would want to bid the world farewell. He lived his idealism in solitude.
The graveyard caretaker told us that university students, especially the mountain climbers, come once in a while to pay tribute to him. Letters and flowers are rarely left, but most of them would come with a tattered copy of his diary and read it next to his resting place. Knowing this made me feel better. They might not be lipstick kisses of devotion, but maybe this is how the solitary Gie would prefer his company – those who share his thoughts.
When we were about to leave, about a dozen people in old colonial costumes came with their old Dutch bikes and started circling the place. One of them led the way, stopping in almost every grave and telling stories of the lives hidden under them without the aid of any signs or card from the museum. Graveyards always have stories to tell, and in Indonesia, their stories are hidden in people instead of being in plain view.
Jakarta, 17 May 2012