What Grows in a Graveyard

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This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the environmental-related work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars who identify as women, trans and non binary people.

You can make bricks in a graveyard. That is, if you have tons of plastic.

In 2019, a cemetery in the Indonesian city of Medan played host to an eco-bricking demonstration as part of the city’s annual clean-up day. With the day’s haul of plastic litter collected from the clogged waterways in the neighbourhood, participants compressed the waste and densely packed them into clean, plastic bottles.

Eco-bricks was created by Canadian artist Russell Maier to provide an alternative building material from waste plastic, saving sand and eliminating trash. Inspired by the work of “bottle brick” inventor Andreas Froese in Honduras, his efforts began as a community-level project in the Philippines in the 2010s. Since then, his work expanded into a global eco-brick alliance with significant presence in Southeast Asia. Participants in Medan’s Clean-Up Day, faced with a rising tide of plastic waste that choked canals and river tributaries, were eager to embrace citizen technologies that could bypass an indifferent municipal government and improve the urban environment. The mood in the bustling graveyard was cheery, energetic and hopeful.

Cemetary signage
Signage for the Sungai Mati cemetery in Medan, first established by migrants from the upland region of Mandailing in the 1880s. It was built on land claimed through a wakaf, a form of Islamic endowment that signified the migrants’ new religious affiliation. Picture taken by author in 2016.
[Image description: A sign behind a bricked fence that reads “Tanah Wakaf Perkuburan Mandailing,” meaning “Endowed Land for a Mandailing Cemetery.”]

Located near a run-down district aptly called Sungai Mati (lit. “Dead River”), the graveyard seemed an unlikely place for plastic to find an afterlife. One can, however, think of ecobricking as just the latest in a series of events that frayed, tore at and re-stitched tangled conceptualizations of life after death. Founded as a reserved burial ground for Muslim migrants who moved to the coastal city from the uplands of North Sumatra towards the end of the nineteenth century, the graveyard represented an assertion of multiple conversions: religious, ethnic and environmental.

In the 1800s, the region was fragmented by encroaching coffee and tobacco enterprises that had supported the Dutch colonial project on the island, often with considerable violence. The friction between plantation owners and subsistence swidden farmers—emerging in tandem with conflict between monotheistic evangelists and local animist communities—generated mass religious conversions. The southern part of the uplands largely converted to Islam in the 1840s and 1850s following the Dutch conquest and its integration into neighbouring Muslim Minangkabau as a colonial unit of administration. The northern part of the uplands was only subdued in the 1880s after several failed resistance campaigns and, thereafter, converted to Christianity.1

These changes were reflected by transformations in burial practices. Prior to the nineteenth century, the rare traveller who reached these parts frequently commented on the preponderance of secondary burials. The potent dead were interred in sarcophagi above ground. The spirits of these departed ancestors remained yoked to the living earth. They were believed capable of inhabiting the non-human natural world: communicative, haunting and protective.2 Interment below ground followed the turn towards monotheism. Sequestering the dead from the living was a tacit acceptance of life after death divorced from this material world.

I was drawn to this cemetery during my fieldwork precisely through the question of afterlife. How did changing notions of an afterlife impact the ways in which we relate to non-human natures?

When the migrants from the uplands moved to Medan and asserted their stake to a plot of land to bury their dead, the claim was an insistence on an ethnic identity which was distinct from a past perceived as backward. It was also entwined with a modernist Islam. Their legal claim to the land was made on the basis that it was a waqf, an Islamic charitable bequest. In theory, the waqf conferred usage in perpetuity, with spiritual benefits accruing in life on earth and afterlife beyond.3

Replica of traditional stone sarcophagi in Samosir, upland North Sumatra. Picture taken by author in 2016.
[Image description: A stone sarcophagi on sand, adorned with a carving of a human head resting atop a sitting human figure.]

Between tradition and modernity, can we conceptualize an afterlife common to people and things? One view, most evident in traditions characterized as animistic, posits a spirit, soul, animating force that occupies all beings. Humans are a significant piece in a mosaic of the living and non-being, powerful but not at the apex of a hierarchy of creatures that can live on after death. Another perspective, more familiar in modernist monotheism, connects the afterlife of people and things through purpose. For humans, it is the purposeful pursuit of a rebirth after death in a place free from suffering and pain. While the non-human cannot make the same transition, they can be repurposed for a new lease of life on earth. The organic disintegrates and gives life to new growth. The inorganic is stripped down to component parts; reduced, reused and recycled into new forms. Absent purpose, the afterlife of things is simply to occupy; a reproachful accumulation growing, growing and growing.

It is tempting to read a history of conversion as a binary displacement of the ‘traditional’ with the ‘modern’: new notions of divinity displacing the old, a preoccupation with the material evacuating spirits and spirituality, transactions muscling out kinship. We might not be as invested in the longue durée future of this earth if it were a stapling point rather than a permanent settlement. Indeed, there have been scholars who regard the remote afterlife of Abrahamic monotheism as relatively inimical to the environmental movement, though polemical versions of this argument have received fair and persuasive critique.

Back in the Sungai Mati graveyard though, the burgeoning bundle of eco-bricks in search of a clear purpose prompts me to consider afterlives as processes rather than end points. Each brick is a possibility, part of imaginaries that have not crystallised and of institutions still forming. Viewed from that angle, past conversions become neither a moment of enlightenment nor a tumble to unsustainable development. They showed, rather, continuous reconfigurations of sacred power in an amorphous locus. If our present environmental crisis is indeed one of values, a history of conversion holds out possibilities of afterlives where those values can come to include all lives.

[1] For an overview of the history of peoples in the North Sumatran uplands, see Leonard Y. Andaya, “The Batak Malayu,” in Leaves of the Same Tree: Trade and Ethnicity in the Straits of Malacca (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press 2008): 146-172. For a deeper study of Christianization in the northern part of the uplands, see Sita Van Bemmelen, Christianity, Colonisation and Gender Relations in North Sumatra (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
[2] On secondary burials and its history, see Shigehiro Ikegami, “Historical Changes of Toba Batak Reburial Tombs,” in Southeast Asian Studies 34, no. 4 (March 1997): 643-675.
[3] In practice, the colonial state did not always uphold the legality of the waqf. On the waqf as a legal instrument in the Dutch East Indies, see Nurfadzilah Yahaya, Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020).

*Cover image: A tombstone that combines elements of Batak tradition and Christianity. Picture taken by author in 2016.

[Cover image description: A tombstone located in a fenced field of grass. The area is surrounded by trees, with two clothes lines on the left side. There are roofs on the backside, and mountains on the horizon. The grave marker is set on a raised platform and shaped like a Batak house with its characteristic saddled-shape roofs. There is a Christian cross on the roof, denoting the religion of the deceased.]

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Faizah Zakaria

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