Autolysis: Post-mortem change
A Visit to the Mausoleum
Upon arrival at his grandfather’s hometown, Iskandar was greeted with grief. He expected that he would struggle with names and faces, but what he didn’t plan for is for his visit to coincide with the seventh-day ceremony of his great aunt’s death, when all their faces wore the same expression.
Upon arrival at his grandfather’s hometown, Iskandar was greeted with grief. He had never stepped foot on the island that his mother’s father grew up in. At the arrival hall by the docks, a gust of air grazed Iskandar’s face. A faint hint of brine lingers at the back of his tongue. Welcome to Dompase, the wind whispered. Iskandar spotted his cousin Mario heading towards him wearing flip flops and a lint-spotted baseball shirt. He didn’t know what his cousin looked like, but he knew it was him once he saw the wrinkled smile on his face. Mario grabbed his luggage and led Iskandar to his two-seater, walking duck-footed ahead of him.
The drive to the grieving house took about an hour. Between small farm lots and shophouses, Iskandar saw glimpses of the glimmering sea, a stark difference from the smog-covered city he left just hours before. A fast-paced tune accompanied their drive, stored in a USB stick plugged into the car stereo. The shrill, programmed instruments held Iskandar from sleeping, and he was exhausted enough from catching the earliest flight of the day. In place of rest, the cousins chit-chatted, politely introducing themselves and tracing threads between relatives they knew in common. Mario, it turns out, composed and performed music for a living, and it was his song that they’ve been listening to. After a while, Iskandar noticed that the same tracks started to play again.
Dr. Kami Fletcher started her career by studying cemeteries. Certain cemeteries are privileged over others, she says. The New England cemeteries were canonised, while Native American burial grounds were dug up and the remains were put in museums in the name of archaeology. Although a person may be allowed a dignified death, a desecration of sanctity can occur generations after. Death is never rigid, it lingers for years. In these traces, the binary passage between life and death has been destroyed. Transformations begin upon the cessation of the heartbeat. This is the issue in quantifying death in capitalist time, for death happens not like a flipped switch but rather as vibrational aftershocks. A personal death is privatised death, but its emergence as a source of knowledge transplants it into the domain of the commons. “People ask me: how do you study death?” Dr. Fletcher says. “I’m studying death like all historians do. Everybody’s dead, right?”
We don’t need to delve into the spiritual realm to see death in the centre of agency. Or rather, how so much of agency depends upon the concept of death. Writing in Necropolitics, Achilles Mbembe states that exercising sovereignty means exercising “control over mortality.” Politics, he writes, is death that lives a human life, because a human being’s subjectivity comes from their struggle to confront death.
“Yet, this will—this power to decide, this part of the mind—is allowed to legally survive the end of bodily death. In a secular world, where the dead are supposedly dead and gone, we are nevertheless bidden to respect the desires of the dead.” – Abou Farman, Towards a Post-Secular Aesthetics: Provocations for Possible Media in Afterlife Art.
The family has set up an awning outside the grieving house, anticipating a big crowd that will arrive later that night. The old house looked light blue under the shade of the awning, its walls peppered with furniture marks that reveal themselves only on occasions like this. Iskandar enjoyed the quiet atmosphere as he walked into the house. Old rugs were laid out and pre-packaged plastic cups of water were stacked like a small hill in the centre of the room. Everyone greeted him by name, they knew he was coming. Iskandar expected that he would struggle with names and faces, especially those relatives whose features have been graced with age. But what he didn’t plan for is for his visit to coincide with the seventh-day ceremony of his great aunt’s death, when all their faces wore the same expression.
Every word he uttered seemed consequential. He wanted to respect his grieving family, though he found it difficult to empathise seeing that he didn’t know what his great aunt actually looked like, or what her exact relation was to him. One cousin showed him a photograph on her phone. She looked just like the other aunts at this gathering. His overly polite disposition made him feel like a young boy interrupting a room full of adults. His relatives would introduce themselves to him briefly, telling him that they’re glad that he’s finally made it out there, then return to their assigned tasks. It seemed like greeting him was one of these tasks. At one point, three sisters, all around his age, started talking to him. It gave him a sense of relief that they were more relaxed than others in the room.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mario gesture to him from outside the house. The front door and all windows of the house were set wide open, meaning anyone could come in and out as they please. Iskandar excused himself and made his way towards Mario.
“Let’s not stay too long, we have to drop your luggage at our house while my mom’s still there,” Mario says. “I’ll show you around town afterwards, and we can make a stop for lunch by the mausoleum since it’s on the way.”
“The mausoleum?” Iskandar asks. He wasn’t sure if his great aunt was that important, or if they were heading elsewhere.
“Yes, your mum said that you needed to see it,” Mario replies. “It’s not our aunt’s, of course.”
Iskandar understood. The two take off in Mario’s car once again.
It seems like when you hear about death in the news, you rarely see the body in a state of death. It’s rare enough that it’s shocking. The dead deserve dignity and the technology of images can be used to either grant or take it away. In Indonesia, an image of a corpse that recently succumbed to the symptoms of COVID-19 was published in National Geographic. In the image, the corpse is wrapped in cellophane rather than the usual lilywhite burial shroud. The removal of identifying features of the body, taken without cultural markers like age, ethnicity or gender, was the photographer’s way to show that this disease can affect just about anyone. If photography marks an event, featuring several protagonists who play a part in defining it, what happens when one of these protagonists are dead?
Photographs are one way that narratives of death are materialised. When a photograph accompanies the news, the photograph itself is transformed by the words that encapsulate it, creating a one-sided interpretation of the event. On the one hand, a narrative of death is archived through this document. On the other, death transforms what we understand as sources of knowledge. “As the living folks change around the cemetery, how they view the cemetery changes. It’s very much a living and not a stoic source of knowledge,” Dr. Fletcher says. In Unshowable Photographs, Ariella Azoulay outlines that when sentries of the archive impose an interpretation on a photograph, the sentries “deny citizens the right to freely read their own history.” Implicit in this is the ability for citizens, members of an imagined community, to read their history through death. In deathways, death work and practices that surround death, there is a potential for history of the living that lies outside of the event of death itself.
The two dropped off Iskandar’s luggage at Mario’s house and left for the mausoleum. As anticipated, Mario’s mother insisted that he ate a full plate before leaving, along with seconds. It would have been rude not to accept the invitation. He took a small portion of rice and poured a ladle of the fish stew she prepared, fragrant with the scent of simmered starfruit. It was fish and fish only on this island, of course. “By the time the fish they caught made it to Jakarta, it would have died a hundred times over,” she said proudly. “Here, it’s as fresh as it gets.” When Iskandar finished, it was only a little past nine in the morning and he knew that his next destination was towards another meal. Iskandar quietly unbuttoned his jeans and made sure to hide the evidence under his t-shirt. He stared at the dusty photo frames on the bookshelf. They sure all look alike, he thought.
As the car cut across town, Mario taught him some phrases from the local dialect. Iskandar took some pride in having a keen ear for dialects. He moved around the country every few years as a child, following his civil servant father’s postings. An aspiring cook, he followed his mother to the market whenever she went, toting around the heavier produce that she picked up. Though he never gained fluency, he always appreciated the different tones that resonated as he eavesdropped on market gossip and bargaining.
Mario turned a corner and pointed out a pale-orange mosque. “You see that mosque over there? We’ve got family buried there,” Mario says. “I can tell you exactly where everyone is. There’s a couple in this mosque. The others are on the other side of town.”
Iskandar stared through the mosque’s iron gates as they drove by. Overgrown graves and cracked headstones fill the mosque’s backyard, all worn with weather.
“That’s how it is here, everyone knows where everyone is. It’s good that you came out here for the seventh-day mourning,” Mario says. “The family doesn’t gather like this all the time.”
Before long, they reached an empty parking lot at the foot of a small hill. A sign covered in vines, ivory white with gold lettering, spells out the name of a seventeenth-century king. Behind it is a tall set of stone stairs that led to a distant structure on the hill. The trees swayed freely in the salty sea breeze, the sound of their branches rubbing together not unlike the crashing waves at high tide.
“We’re here,” Mario says.
Mario led the way and started climbing the steps. He leapt two at a time, a light-footed gait in familiar territory. As he got to the top, Iskandar was greeted by a green mausoleum with a dark brown roof. The walls were made out of concrete. Small hexagonal slits had been carved out so visitors could pay their respects in without entering. The door frame was embellished with gold paint and four ornate columns supported the dome roof in each corner. The mausoleum itself was surrounded by smaller graves, each spotting a different style of gravestone.
“All the surrounding graves are of his direct lineage. They’re all buried here. But he’s the only one in the mausoleum itself,” Mario says. “They say that everyone in Dompase was a descendant of one of six kings. He is the one that we came from.”
Iskandar peered through the slits on the wall. You couldn’t see much, but he suddenly felt a presence. The breeze stopped and clouds soothed the piercing morning sun. It felt peaceful, for once. Iskandar knew that the rest of his trip would be filled with stories and that his stomach would be filled with food. He imagined the scene that he’d find that evening: he and his cousins would light up coal to grill fish on a smoky porch. They’d share childhood stories about his grandfather, about how strict he was, about how much he changed in his old age before death. He closed his eyes and recited Al-Fātiḥah. Iskandar stayed silent for a minute and lifted his head.
He looked around to find Mario puffing on a cigarette, scrolling through his phone by the stairs, uninterested. Iskandar walked over to him, and the two of them descended the stairs.