June 7, 2009
Unearthing stories from the ground
Last month, Associate Editor Zuraidah Ibrahim shared her experience at the exhumation of the graves of her relatives. A reader, who worked as a gravedigger for a year to fund his higher education, wrote in to share his experience
By Habib Sabur Mydin
After my O levels in Tanjong Katong Technical Secondary School, I was looking for work to earn some money before I went to junior college. I found a job opening through my classmate whose father ran an exhumation company.
No specific skills were needed, just brute strength and the ability to wield a changkol (spade). I took on the job of a gravedigger for a whole year. There was no special reason except that it paid $75 per grave - a fortune in those days. I started at the age of 17 and dug all over Singapore for the whole of 1985.
The easiest graves were in Tanah Merah, where the soil was soft and sandy, and the hardest were on Pulau Tekong, where it was hard clay. All the graves I dug were Muslim ones. Only a Muslim can exhume another Muslim's grave, according to syariah law, I was told. There was absolutely nothing scary about doing it. In fact, I enjoyed the hard work. The environment was also great, absolutely quiet and solemn.
Muslim graves must be 1.8m deep and 0.9m across. It's easy to know when you have reached the required depth. You will always hit hard, reddish clay soil. The tools are simple: a changkol and basket. The headstones always face west towards qibla, Mecca. You start at the head and move lengthwise.
A mayat, or corpse, is always placed on the right side of the grave, head tucked into one corner. A papan (wooden plank) is placed over it, and then soil is dumped over.
The graves I dug were more than 20 years old. Usually, as the papan decomposes over time, the top soil caves in and dirt and dust cover the grave. So most times, the first 0.9m is easy until you hit the papan with the changkol. Then, it becomes painstakingly slow.
Most of the time, nature would have done its job. Decomposition would be complete. Femur bones would be found. The problem was differentiating the bones from the pieces of papan.
I would scoop up the dirt into the basket and sieve for twig-like materials. If I found a 'twig', I would break it into two and look at the cross-section. Papan pieces would have fibre running through, while bones would be hollow. I would then throw away the wood and collect the bones. Not exactly rocket science, but it worked.
The skull would be found almost intact most of the time. The funny thing was, it was usually found far away from the rest of the remains.
There was once I couldn't find it. I started tunnelling away from the headstone. There was a loud crack about a metre away when my spade hit something hard. I found the skull, but I had cracked it into two. Luckily, no waris, or relatives who have claims on the grave, were around and I would say a silent prayer.
I would usually get the graves that had claims on them. That meant that a relative or two would be present. I would usually do a dramatic presentation to them of the whole procedure before I began. Since most waris were female, I presumed it must be the inborn curiosity of women that made them come to the exhumations.
The management preferred me to handle the women waris. My work became a spectacle of exploration for the unknown. Exploration and examination of even the merest pebbles would ensure appreciative sighs, nods and eventually a few dollars would be discreetly slipped into my hand.
There was also the matter of 'bonus' digs when suddenly two skulls would turn up. There were usually two reasons for this. Either there was a hidden (lost) grave nearby, or the 'neighbour' had decided to move in (possible scientific reason: earth movements).
For a gravedigger, it was like hitting the jackpot. He could claim for two digs instead of one. It was an unusual way of getting a bonus in this job.
Children's graves were sad. They were usually 0.9m deep, with absolutely no remains most times, only dirt, which was often taken as the remains. The job took about 15 minutes.
There were times when a body was found almost intact. Some say that these are the graves of sinners. For me, I think the soil may have held a higher concentration of salt or minerals.
The dig would stop. The pakala would be called in. I don't know why he was called this (there is no translation for the word), but he handled the worst cases. He wore a white mask, for obvious hygiene reasons, and sprinkled rose water all over the grave. Skilfully, he would slide a white cloth beneath the body and do a rewrap. The body would then be carefully hoisted away.
I remember a corpse of a young woman in her 20s that was completely intact. It rapidly became the object of ogling eyes. Quickly, a white cloth was erected around the grave. She was swiftly swept off her feet, away from the prying eyes, by the ever-efficient pakala.
At the end of each day, I would have dug at least four graves.
Next came the relocation of the remains to Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, where the remains would be reburied. There, more bonus payment could be earned. An excavator would have already dug the neat holes, row after row. A quick re-burial would net one another princely sum. But I would often not go to work there because I would have been exhausted after a hard day's digging.
What I have written is from a gravedigger's perspective. I have come to realise that some of the best relationships are made from the least likely places on earth. Till today, I am in touch with the gravediggers who dug alongside me 24 years ago. Gravedigging also funded me through junior college and university. I am eternally grateful for that.
The writer is the managing director of a headhunting firm that was set up in 1998