A gravedigger shares his experience in exhuming long buried remains
KAPITAN Kong Chak Fui folded the red cloth carefully before placing it in a plastic bag and taking it to his car outside his house at Sungai Pak, Kanowit.
There was another plastic bag containing joss sticks, together with a hammer, hell money, and several other items in the car.
He was going to Nanga Ngungun in Sungai Ngemah that day – 45 minutes’ drive from Kanowit town – to meet Tuai Rumah Nyumping Kudul.
The headman had asked Kong to exhume the remains of his late father Kudul Tang and younger brother Moses Kudul, who had been buried in their orchard ground at the settlement.
Nyumping’s father died of an unknown illness on Aug 17, 1991, while his brother died on Oct 18, 1993, at the age of 24.
A few months earlier prior to his demise, Moses had been hit by fallen cables at his workplace in Miri and had to stay in the hospital for a month.
He returned to Sibu after being discharged but collapsed one day and died.
Reinterment of bones
While the practice of digging up graves to exhume whatever remains are left of a deceased person is common among some communities, it’s not so for the Ibans.
Nyumping said the exhumation was necessary because their orchard ground had been acquired for the 5.1km Nanga Ngemah-Nanga Ngungun by-pass, which is part of the 86km Kapit-Song-Kanowit Road linking Kapit Division to the other major towns.
One of the project’s components was a new bridge spanning Sungai Ngemah near the graves.
The remains of Kudul and Moses would be reinterred in a new plot at Baluh Batang, next to that of Nyumping’s late mother.
Kong, 50, a community leader of Sengayan area in Kanowit, has been a gravedigger or ‘remains relocation master’ for 31 years — an occupation that has brought him to as far as Sabah and Brunei Darussalam.
He started as a general labourer at age 19, working at a cemetery in Brunei. His job included cleaning water tanks and delivering sand and bricks.
Just three days into the job, his towkay sent him to the cemetery early in the morning to dig up a grave.
“My first dig and it felt really eerie. One corpse was buried just one week ago next to the grave I was digging. It’s certainly not a job for the faint-hearted. But I hung on, knowing I didn’t have any academic qualifications and I needed money,” Kong recalled.
It was around this time that he met his ‘sifu’ from Kuching from whom he learned how to exhume human bones and relocate the remains.
To date, Kong has done 200 exhumations.
He said it was quite scary at first but he got used to it after a while.
Kong revealed that as a bone collector for over 30 years, he had never experienced anything unusual before or after the relocation process.
In Kudul and Moses’ case, it was his first time exhuming the bones of Ibans. Most of the time, he has been doing it for the Chinese community.
No simple procedure
In a disinterment ritual, Nyumping chose a sow which had given birth three times for his father and a hog for his brother who died a bachelor.
This tradition, known as ‘Picking of Gold’ or ‘Bone Cleaning’ has a history dating back to the Neolithic time of Ancient China.
The relocation of remains is not a simple procedure. It has to be performed by a feng shui expert or an experienced relocation master as an act of filial piety on the part of the family concerned, according to nirvanacaringservice.blogspot.com.
Exhumation is usually done 10 years after burial for various reasons. Some descendants collect and send the bones back for reburial at the deceased’s birthplace, while others relocate the remains based on feng shui practices.
The Chinese believe the location of ancestral graves could affect the fortunes of the descendants.
Some exhumations are carried out to make way for land and other development projects.
Before the attaps of Kudul and Moses’ graves were removed, a miring was held, followed prayers led by Tuai Rumah Bangau Aji and Kong.
Kong circled each grave three times before knocking the cement cover thrice with a hammer to signify the demolition of the graves.
He had earlier asked the road project contractor to use an excavator to remove the cement covers of both graves.
Once this was done, he asked everyone standing close by not to look or peek at the remains before he gave the signal.
He then jumped into Kubul’s grave and removed the coffin cover. He chanted something before touching the remains and telling everyone they could now have a look.
According to Kong, the exhumation must start from the feet up to the skull. It must be done in that order — the same as when bones are placed in the urn for reburial or cremation.
The whole process — from removing the grave cover, exhumation, drying the bones, and reburial — could take between seven and eight hours.
“Bones are usually placed on a zinc sheet and left to dry in the sun. The zinc sheet will help the bones to dry faster.
“If it rains, we will make a fire under the zinc sheet to dry the bones,” he explained.
Kong remembers an incident, involving a deceased who had been buried for 46 years.
He said the family concerned was looking for a relocation master and they contacted him.
“When I reached the house with my workers, the grandson asked who the digger was and I introduced myself.
“He looked me over in disbelief. I know he must have expected to see me with grey hair and a moustache — like on TV,” recalled Kong, who was much younger at the time.
Regardless, he dug up the grave, exhumed the bones, and arranged them in order with his discerning client looking on intently.
After checking Kong’s work, the grandson gave it the nod.
Kong now knows why the grandson was rather sceptical. He said the latter later revealed he was also in the same line of work. “He’s an expert in bone exhumation. So he should know if we had incorrectly arranged the bones or if any part was missing,” Kong noted.
As an experienced bone collector, Kong knows whether or not the deceased had relied on medicines during his or her lifetime.
From experience, he said it usually takes between four and five years for a body to completely decompose into a skeleton, depending on factors such as temperature, humidity, and depth of the grave.
“If a person had relied on medicine due to illness, his bones, especially the ribs, would decay more quickly than those of people who died of old age.
“The bones may look okay but if touched, they can break easily.”
On Kudul’s bones, he said they were generally still intact even after 29 years of burial.
“After two decades or so, usually the small bones will decay, especially the spine and ribs. What’s left are major bones like the arms, legs and the skull, including the jawbone,” he said.
The oldest grave he has ever dug up so far was 76 years old, belonging to a man from Brunei.
Kong said the only things left were the soles of the deceased’s rubber shoes.
“His remains had crumbled to dust. So I put the soles and a handful of soil in an urn for reburial next to the deceased’s late wife,” he added.