A visit to Taman Prasasti Museum, a former Dutch cemetery with multiple shades of history

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An angel whose hand is severed, indicating somebody dies without her/his goals fulfilled

When I talk of tourism, you might envision picturesque natural landscapes or cultural attractions that draw throngs of people, but how about visiting a cemetery? Taman Prasasti Museum might not be as creepy as Chernobyl fallout zone, but it is definitely worth a visit as it revives the memories of our colonial past and provides a window to understanding the then social structure.

A BIT OF HISTORY

Located just off Tanah Abang I Street, Taman Prasasti Museum was a former burial ground known as Kebon Jahe Kober, which was designated for Dutch noblemen. It all started back in 18th century when Batavia was undergoing a major outbreak of malaria and dysentery, causing mortality rate to soar in a short span of time. During this period, a total of 85,000 Dutch people perished due to the diseases, prompting the colonial government to ponder over opening a new graveyard as the existing cemetery of Niewe Hollandsche Kerk, a church that is said to lie in the present day Wayang Museum area, was unable to accommodate the increased deaths.

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Former Niewe Hollandsche Kerk building

In 1795, the Dutch colonial government found a strategic piece of land near Krukut River and commenced building the cemetery. This cemetery was subsequently used exclusively for the burials of the Christian Dutch noblemen and prominent figures during the Dutch colonial rule and the short-lived British and Japanese occupations, but it lasted well into the dusk of 20th century until the Governor of Jakarta jumped on the decision to transform the cemetery into a museum in 1975 (open to public in 1977). Besides accommodating deaths caused by such a disease outbreak, the cemetery also became a resting place for the corpses that were relocated from Niewe Hollandsche Kerk cemetery, which lay near a river, following the order of the Dutch East Indies Governor-General Herman Willem Daendels. This was largely because of the Dutch tradition of burying family members in the same hole at a shallow depth. Due to occasional floods and the cemetery’s close proximity to the river, some of the cemetery soil was constantly eroded by the strong stream that caused the bodies to float off, adding up to the already alarming health problems in Batavia. Therefore, the bodies were relocated to Kebon Jahe Kober Cemetery.

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The river adjacent to the cemetery of Niewe Hollandsche Kerk

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Tombstones in the museum

The cemetery was in operation until 1975, but during the Japanese occupation Kebon Jahe Kober cemetery was already neglected and partly damaged owing to such natural disasters as earthquakes, floods, and Krakatau volcanic eruption that devastated much of western portion of Java. Out of over 1,300 tombstones, only about 300 were actually recognized. When the cemetery was converted into a museum, however, all of the bodies were unearthed and re-buried in surrounding cemeteries, such as Menteng Pulo, Tanah Kusir, and Sion Church cemeteries. In addition, after receiving a notice issued by the government, the families of the dead shipped the corpses to the Netherlands for reburials. Later, the original area of the cemetery was significantly downsized to its present area of about 1.3 ha because of the establishments of nearby schools and other public facilities.

LOOKING CLOSELY AT THE MUSEUM

Approaching the museum, I honestly got a bit spooked by the three angel sculptures and two antique-looking horse-drawn carriages, which shrouded the museum in a strong air of mystery, grief, and loss—certainly enough to give me some slight shivers as I was making my way to the ticketing office. Back in the day, these carriages were utilized to carry the dead bodies from the dock of Krukut River, which was a waterway for the transportation of corpses using boats, to the cemetery.

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One of two horse-drawn carriages at the museum’s entrance

Interestingly, the number of horses deployed to pull the carriages varied across social positions, ranging from 2 to 8 horses, and there seemed to be a competition among these elite families to establish some evidence of wealth and social positions. The corpses weren’t taken to the burial ground straightaway; instead, the families usually opted to have the corpses put in one of the two antechambers while waiting until the sun set and the night fell. Guess what? The further into the night the funerals were held; the more they signified that the families were of high social positions. This was because night funerals, in which they needed more candles and paid much fine to the government, would.cost more money than daylight funerals,

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The bell that was rung when the bodies arrived

Just as I walked past the main entrance, I happened upon a stained, creepy looking bell that back then was tolled at the arrival of the dead bodies, indicating that funeral was to be held in a bit. Around the corner visitors can see two coffins situated adjacent to each other; these were used to keep the bodies of Indonesia’s first president and vice president, Mr. Ir. Soekarno and Mr. Moh. Hatta, but weren’t buried along the bodies as it isn’t a common practice in general Islamic tradition here.

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Coffins used to keep the bodies of Mr. Soekarno and Mr. Hatta

The tombstones look a bit jumbled and lopsided with some attached to the wall, and they generally show a wide ranging variety of decorations. Some of these tombstones are impressively adorned, showing a mesmerizing grandeur, but others are way less sophisticated. Roaming around the area, I actually stumbled across the tombstones of some of prominent figures in Indonesian history e.g. Soe Hok Gie, an activist in 1960s, and Dr. J.L. Andries Brandes, an archaeologist and expert in old Javanese language who unveiled a plethora of manuscripts written by the kings of Tumapel and Majapahit kingdoms. However, the bulk of my attention actually went to the quite many kinds of languages inscribed on the tombstones e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Yiddish, Dutch, French, Indonesian. This shows that, while widely thought to be exclusively for the Dutch, the cemetery was open to any Christians of great influence, regardless of their ethnicity or race.

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Soe Hok Gie’s tombstone

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Dr. J.L. Andries Brandes’ tombstone

Although I personally think the museum is awesome, there’s certainly space for improvement. The museum could’ve put a bit more information boards across the area so that people wouldn’t go in there just for photography. But still, you guys should add this to your bucket list!

Lordason

 

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