There's a real fascination with death that runs through Indonesia. Whether it's the grotesque images of mutilated bodies that suddenly appear in everyone's WhatsApp groups in the wake of a terrorist attack or other national tragedy or the deep well of indigenous funeral rituals that exists across the country, in Indonesia, death is something to be discussed openly.
In the city of Surabaya, one museum has turned this fascination into a downright obsession. The Museum and Center of Ethnographic Research, at Airlangga University, shines a light on five unique Indonesian death rites—like the Rambu Solo feasts of Toraja, where the corpses are removed from their tombs and stood upright, the Brobosan tradition, in East Java, where the children of the deceased need to walk beneath the coffin before burial, and the Batak people's idea of Saur Matua, or the good death, a concept that the best time to die is after your kids are fully grown, with jobs and families of their own.
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A massive replica of a human skull greets visitors as soon as they walk into the museum. Farther inside, the skulls and skeletons are all real, many of them from the private collections of the museum's founders, Habil Josef Glinka and A. Adi Sukadana, both professors at Airlangga University department of anthropology.
“We had so many things in our collection," said Toetik Koesbardiati, the museum's head. "We needed a place to keep them."
The rest of the museum is filled with a macabre collection of photos documenting the culture of death as well as the artifacts, tools, and sacred items used in local funeral rituals.
Delta Bayu Murti, the museum's curator, guided me toward a skeleton covered with a red cloth—a representation of the burial traditions of Trunyan village, in central Bali, where local people lay out their dead to decompose on an island in a lake. He pointed to the petrified tendons of the body's feet, commenting, "the skeletons are real and they're in great condition."
But that doesn't mean each skeleton is actually from the area it represents. It would be wrong to remove one of the bodies from the traditional burial grounds of Trunyan village. So, instead, the museum found a way to fake it… sort of.
"We borrowed it from the police,” Bayu explained.
The local police provides the museum with bodies of unidentified corpses. The bones of the man displayed in the Trunyan village portion of the museum belonged to a man only know by the name "Mr. X." But he now has a new life acting as the corpse of a Balinese villager. It's a morbid second act for a dead man, but an oddly poetic one. As an unidentified corpse, he would've been cremated and forgotten a long time ago. But now, as a museum exhibition, he has visitors every day.