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Catholic Families Honor Dead With Food, Not Flowers

Updated: November 09, 2004 05:00 PM GMT
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Catholic villagers in West Timor brought cookies when they went to the cemetery to honor their dead relatives and ancestors.

Elsewhere in Indonesia food also took the place of the flowers and candles more common elsewhere on All Souls´ Day.

The Bunaq tribal parishioners of Fulur, Nualain and Weluli in West Timor call the Nov. 2 Christian celebration Tubi Lai (offering cookies) Day in their language. The name derives from the local tradition of families taking various kinds of cookies and putting them on the graves of deceased relatives.

The three parishes close to the border with East Timor are part of Atambua diocese. They are in the same subdistrict about 30 kilometers east of the main town of Atambua, some 2,000 kilometers east of Jakarta.

The parishioners in this border area put cookies in dishes or "tenasak," small boxes woven from pandan leaf. They place these on the graves or hang them around the graveyard for the dead whose graves they cannot identify.

Family members go to a grave, and the oldest woman says out loud the names of the deceased relatives or tribal members they want to honor. Other family members prompt her with any names she forgets. The more names she mentions, the more cookies are offered.

The family also gives cookies to visitors who pray with them.

Even the Catholic service at the graveyard, led by a catechist, is conducted with cookies and betel, another gift that traditionally symbolizes respect, rather than candles and flowers. Parishioners eat most of the cookies used in the service, though some are broken and scattered on the graves.

According to Johanes Bau, 51, a Bunaq man, all the houses in the three Catholic villages are empty on Tubi Lai Day. "Almost all parishioners go to clean the graveyard in the morning and to bring cookies in the afternoon. We are fed up with cookies, because we are offered cookies from one grave to another grave," he said. He added that the event is a family reunion, with members asking forgiveness from the dead and each other.

Food played a part in the All Souls´ Day observance of Javanese Catholics in Klaten, Surakarta, 450 kilometers east of Jakarta. They conduct "sadranan," or "ruwahan," rites to remember their deceased relatives and friends.

For sadranan, which traditionally comes during the Javanese month of Ruwah, Javanese go to graveyards with "tumpeng" (cones of steamed rice), "jangan kluwih" (vegetables) and "gereh pethek," (salted, dried fish in the form of a cross).

According to Father Gregorius Utomo, a consultor of Semarang archdiocese, which covers Surakarta, through sadranan the Javanese want to demonstrate a close and harmonious relationship with their ancestors, between those living in this world and those in the next world.

"Tumpeng symbolizes life. Its mountain shape makes people remember the real living order, from the earth or ground to the peak, the highest, the Lord in heaven. Human life should be directed to the real and true life, the Lord, the source of life," he explained.

"Jangan kluwih in Javanese pronunciation is similar to ´linuwih,´ which means ´more than´ or ´exceed.´ It reminds the Javanese to reach betterment or perfection, or to enjoy true life in togetherness with God in eternal life," the priest continued.

Gereh pethek, he said, is pronounced similarly to "pantek" (cross) and encourages people to crucify or strengthen themselves through "mati raga," the putting aside of all comforts.

"For Catholics, mati raga means that people will reach the true life only when they unite themselves with Sang Pinantek, the Crucified, Jesus Christ," Father Utomo, 75, told UCA News Nov. 4 in Ganjuran, Yogyakarta.

However, traditions vary even in the central Java area.

During sadranan or ruwahan, villagers of Yogyakarta Special Province prepare different dishes: sweet and salty sticky rice; banana and sweet potato boiled in coconut milk and sugar; and rice cakes.

The three dishes symbolize, respectively, the close relationship between the living and the dead, the harmony in this relationship and the relationship between human beings and God.

Father Utomo said the souls of the dead have united with God, "but they still remember us living in the world and hope that we remember them."

According to the retired priest, sadranan has a depth of meaning that corresponds with Catholic teaching. That is why, he said, his mere participation in the celebration communicates effectively with Catholics.

"For a long time, as a priest, I always joined sadranan in several villages where my ancestors were buried. By doing so, without any explanation, parishioners will actively participate in sadranan too," he said.


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