Tales of a graveyard minder

The entrance to the Cemetery.

The entrance to the Cemetery.

WHEN the body was exhumed, there was neither any sign of decay nor foul odour of any sort.

In fact, the corpse was still clad in traditional Chinese garb. It looked as though death had occurred just yesterday.

But for 52-year-old Thian Joon Liung, it was the most shocking sight he had ever seen in more than 30 years as a cemetery caretaker.

Thian looks after the Hakka Association Cemetery at Mile 14 Kuching-Serian Road. He is also an authorised ‘tombstone’ sub-contractor for this burial ground.

He ook over from his father and has spent the better part of his life at the job.

Relating his hair-raising encounter, Thian said the exhumed corpse had been buried for 13 years at another cemetery at Mile 10, and the exhumation was done some five years ago.

He could still remember vividly how the body looked, especially the eyes, which seemed ‘very alive’ – like they were able to stare at things!

“Usually after people died, their eyes were the fastest to sink and decay but the corpse’s eyes we saw the moment the coffin was opened had a haunting glare – which sent chills down my spine,” he said.

It was as if the deceased had been smoldering under discontentment over something, he added with restrained emotion.

“Everybody present was surprised. Some were perhaps even horrified. One the deceased man’s braver sons took a picture of the corpse.”

According to Thian, what people had expected to see was a skeleton in decaying rags. Nobody was prepared to come face to face with something that looked like it could jump out of the coffin any moment!

It was only after being exposed to the heat and humid air for about two hours that the skin colour of the body began to fade. The natural process of decomposition was finally taking place – incredibly more than a decade after the deceased was buried.

Thian said the exhumation was at the request of the deceased’s family who had consulted a fengshui sinseh on whether there could have been any mystical reason behind the misfortunes frequently befalling the deceased’s sons. All their marriages had strangely ended up in divorce.

After some ‘research and analysis,’ the fengshui sinseh concluded that the deceased could have been buried at a place not compatible with his spiritual aura.

So, he suggested to the sons they could try relocating the  tomb from its original spot to the Hakka Cemetery at Mile 14.

According to sources gathered from some elders, in Chinese folklore, corpses that do not decay have turned into some kind of vampires. It is like the dead have not really died. So out of such a situation could arise all sorts of spectral problems capable of affecting the family members or descendants of the deceased.

It is believed a most common consequence is that whatever tasks or plans the family members undertake will either falter or fail completely. In some extreme cases, these so-called vampires may even take the lives of their living family members to stay ‘alive.’

That’s why matters related to the burial of the dead are often taken very seriously by the more traditional Chinese community. Improper funeral arrangements, for instance, could give rise to bad consequences.

Hopping jiangshis

According to superstitions of the community, a Jiangshi can be described as a Chinese vampire. It is a type of reanimated corpse popularly depicted in Chinese horror movies.

Due to their stiff bodies, the Jiangshis move by hopping instead of walking.

With a bounding gait and outstretched hands, they roam the neighbourhood, looking for the living to suck out their yang qi or vital energy

in  an attempt to maintain their semblance of being alive. After hunting for human victims at night, the Jiangshis return to their coffins to rest before sunrise.

Several theories have been postulated as to why corpses can become such vampires. Among the more common ones cited are spiritual possession of a dead body; a corpse absorbing enough yang qi such as from a pregnant black cat that leaps over it; the soul failing to leave the body due to some undeserving death; a corpse electrically charged by a lightning strike; the deceased not properly buried or its burial spot not located according to fengshui.

Thian said the exhumed corpse he mentioned did not get up to hop around because it had been securely buried deep in the ground.

“I have never seriously believed in ghosts or vampires or anything of that nature until I saw that 13-year-old corpse still looking so fresh,” Thian said with a nervous laugh.

“Even if you beat me to death, I would still refuse to believe in the possibilities of such wraith-like and blood-sucking beings until five years ago. Many of us that day were horrified by what we saw. Although I have been dealing with corpses for quite a while, I remember my blood going stone cold. I dared not stare at the corpse too long.”

He added that it was usually advisable – indeed, the common practice – for such a corpse to be cremated quickly with proper prayers offered to avert any possibility of it causing mischief to the living, but for sentimental reasons, the sons wanted their father’s body to be re-buried intact.

According to Thian, to rebury an exhumed body which has been dead for many years, a plot of land only four feet in length is usually required because what is left will be just pieces of bones.

But in the case of the Hakka Cemetery, the selected plot had to be enlarged overnight to the standard seven feet to accommodate the entire corpse for a proper burial.

Thian revealed this was one of the extraordinary experiences he had had in his entire career as a cemetery caretaker.

Disturbing ‘debt’ dreams

He said since his job required him to deal with many people, he was bound to come across stories not known to the general public.

He then recounted a few stories that are directly connected to him.

First, it was about a 20-year-old debt owed him but was paid just this year.

A man had passed RM1,500 to his elder brother to pay Thian. The amount was the balance of an outstanding debt incurred in constructing their father’s tomb some 20 years ago.

For some ‘unknown reason,’ the elder brother never passed the money to Thian and Thian also did not bother asking for the unpaid debt. Eventually, he forgot about it.

However, earlier this year, the man (younger brother) had a dream in which a deity – Datuk Kong or Tua Pek Kong – told him he still had a debt that had not been settled for a long time.

That got the man very worried. He then asked around if he, indeed, had owed someone money of which he might have forgotten.

Finally, he came to his elder brother and told him about the dream. Sensing it could be something serious, the elder brother confessed he actually had never handed Thian the RM1,500.

What followed really surprised Thian.

“Someone suddenly approached me to say he must pay me a debt that has remained outstanding for more than 20 years.

“The man never knew his elder brother never paid me. The elder brother took the trouble to seek me out and was so glad he could find me that he even gave me an angpow in addition to the RM1,500,” he related.

According to Chinese traditional belief, money owed in connection with funeral or burial matters cannot be left unpaid. It should best be settled as soon as all funeral services had been completed otherwise the debtor would suffer all kinds of unearthly consequences.

Some of the graves are elaborately decorated.

Some of the graves are elaborately decorated.

Bigger debt

Another case shared by Thian involved a bigger debt of RM15,000.

A man found that whatever businesses he undertook over the past two or three years seemed to end in failure – or not doing as well as they should.

One night, his father, who died some 10 years ago, appeared to him in a dream, saying the house he was living in was not “his.”

This got the man wondering what his deceased father was trying to hint to him. So he decided to find out about the significance that strange dream.

Finally, he discovered, to his horror, that the large sum of money he had trustingly passed to his elder brother to pay for the tomb of their father was never handed to Thian.

When the man confronted his elder brother about it, the latter admitted his guilt, pleading that he needed the money urgently at that time. The man then went to look for Thian to negotiate paying off the ‘debt’ by installments.

Thian later found out that as soon as the first installment was paid, the man felt a heavy burden had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders and soon after, rather mysteriously, his businesses began picking up and running smoothly.

That particular debt was settled in full before the last Chinese New Year. In doing so, the man had abided by the Chinese custom that all debts should preferably be settled before the old year ends so that the debtor can start afresh in the new year. Thian said the tomb cost RM20,000 but he got paid only RM5,000.

He also said the Chinese strongly believe a dead person’s debt cannot be owed for too long or it will manifest itself in undesirable forms to the family members or descendents of the deceased.

Badly built tomb

Thian shared yet another story but it had nothing to do with debts.

A teenage boy had been killed in a road accident and his tomb was ‘very badly’ constructed by a contractor. The boy began to appear to each member of his family in dreams, complaining his home had not been properly built.

The family did not take the dreams seriously, so none of them went to check. After all, they thought they would get to see the tomb after the customary 100th day final prayer.

As the story goes, since the dead boy was unable to get any response from his closest kin, he resorted to pleading his case through an aunt who lived in Kuala Lumpur.

Appearing to her dreams, he poured out the same grievance to her. The aunt, being superstitious, called the family, asking them to check the boy’s tomb. It was only then that some of them made the effort to take a look, and true enough, they found the workmanship far from satisfactory.

They hired Thian to reconstruct the tomb while the previous contractor decided to refund the family.

Thian said he never believed in spiritual things himself nor feared ghosts or the paranormal.

“Why fear them when we did nothing bad to them?”

For Thian, even though a cemetery is associated with so much grief and sadness, he still insists “the silent residents” there are the most peaceful and harmless entities on earth.

“Just like the homes of the living, those of the departed also need a caretaker,” he said, adding that if he noticed any tombs which had not been visited for a long time, he would stop to read the name inscribed on the tombstone to show “the occupant of the tomb” that he or she is still remembered and acknowledged by the living.

Based on his observation, quite a number of people come to the cemetery regardless of the occasion.

Perhaps they experienced a sense of calm by being at the graveyard, he said.

He also knows the regulars who visit the tombs of their beloved ones almost every week.

“They place flowers on the tombs and at times may even say a few words to their beloved departed.”

The Hakka Cemetery has a scenic surrounding.

The Hakka Cemetery has a scenic surrounding.

Peaceful and satisfying

The Hakka Cemetery which has been in existence since 1969, is situated on about 175 acres of land with a scenic backdrop of greenery and hills, and has thousands of graves.

Many of the tombs are elaborately constructed. Some of the fixtures such as stone balls, are so attractive that they sometimes get stolen. That’s why these fixtures now have serial numbers and they get damaged if the numbers are removed, rendering them worthless.

Thian said unlike the old days, grave plots now are systematically arranged, allowing limited space to each plot for the caskets to be adjusted according to the fengshui requirements of the individuals concerned.

He added that working at a cemetery could be “very peaceful and satisfying” and he gets a good feeling, knowing his job is actually a service to the departed.

“After all, it’s everyone’s final resting place.”

However, Thian lamented that not many people nowadays wanted to work at a cemetery.

He finds it hard to get workers. One reason could be that the job is perceived as ill-omened. Moreover, some people have all kinds superstitions or taboos about burial grounds.

Thian pays his workers RM70 a day. Their duties include maintaining the lawns and plants, and digging graves as well. Thian does most of the landscaping and sometimes performs funeral services such as ‘opening and closing’ burial plots – which is basically digging and covering the graves.

He said he would hand his job over to his son soon – meaning the occupation of cemetery caretaker has been in the family for three generations.