Today, I Saw My Grandparents’ Bones
I am not sure what benefit this note will bring you, or how it might affect you. I am writing this because I need to tell someone what’s going on inside of me. Because right now, it feels like I am going to implode.
Earlier this year, I accompanied my father to the Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery and witnessed for myself the exhumation of my late grandfather’s grave.
At the point of standing there, and taking in all that was going on, I remember thinking to myself – I hope none of my children or grandchildren will have to experience what I was going through.
“Nothing is sacred in this country any more.” These were the words of a close friend of mine when I told him about how I felt throughout the exhumation.
I stood there below the morning sun with my father beside me. We watched as the grave-digger reached the ‘Papan Long’. We were silent. I could only imagine what was going through my father’s heart and mind as remains of his father were carefully lifted from the muddy pool of water that had formed from over thirty years of rain and decomposition.
Maybe it’s me. But I believe most people would either want to find nothing, or a whole body, untouched and preserved despite the years of being six-feet under.
My late grandfather was a pious man in his lifetime. His tongue was continuously engaged in selawat and dzikir. And I had wanted to believe that Allah swt would preserve his body, the way we have heard Him preserve the Syuhada and the Solihin.
I had never met my grandfather in my lifetime. He passed before I was born. So you could say it was a surreal moment, seeing my grandfather for the first time.
The grave-digger assigned to my grandfather’s lot was meticulous. He started from the lower portion of body. And as he carefully lifted and placed each darkened bone on the sheet of clear canvas, he would tell us which body part it was – the feet, the thigh bone, the pelvic bone, the spine, the arms and then the skull, of my late grandfather.
I’d never seen my grandfather. But from his bones, I could tell he was a tall man. It’s amazing how you could tell a person from his bones.
And he had a full set of teeth. I could see them clearly.
All this while, my father stood next to me, quiet. I could sense him holding back his emotion. How could he not? I imagine, if the mere mention of a person’s name can bring forth a barrage of memories, what more, seeing the remains of your loved one, being laid out, piece by piece right in front of you.
And today, I was there when my maternal grandmother’s grave was to be exhumed and her remains re-interred.
It wasn’t as emotional witnessing this exhumation as it was for my grandfather. Maybe because it was the second time for me and I already knew what to expect.
Still, standing there as the remains were taken out bit by bit was just as surreal. I can take comfort in the fact that I spotted a loose piece of bone that slipped out of the clear canvas sheet. I think it was part of her hand.
It’s surreal because when you look at the bones you think ‘these bones were once fleshed with muscle, tissue and skin, and it had life, and the life was that of my grandmother.’ And when I looked at the pelvic bone which was still intact, I thought ‘those hips bore my mother.’
It’s amazing how you could tell a person from her bones. My grandmother was a tall lady, I could tell.
These series of exhumation is taking its toll on me. It makes me think too much sometimes, about life and mortality and the fragility of it all.
We’ve been told that the soul feels the pain of death, so great that we should always handle the jenazah carefully, lest the soul feels more pain. But staring at the bones being taken out of a grave dug open, and placed on a canvas sheet, I wondered, “Does the soul still feel any pain, after thirty years?”
We are told that when we visit a grave, and say our salaam to the deceased, Allah swt puts back the soul of the deceased so that he or she may answer our salaam. Will the soul of my grandmother accompany her remains to the re-interred site some 2 km away in order that she will answer my salaam when I visit her next?
Visiting the grave has always had meaning, it is something sacred, to me at least. But after today, I find myself asking questions I have no answers for. I find my thoughts drifting back to the remains of my grandmother.
There are some things you notice when you look at the remains, which you can’t when the person was alive. I noticed how my grandmother has a pronounced nasal bridge, clearly corroborating my mother’s account that she had a very sharp nose. As I type this, I can picture it still. It’s all so real, you can touch it, literally..
Some will argue that this process of exhumation and re-interment is disrespectful to the dead. Some others will argue that it is the only practical choice we have given our country’s scarcity of land. Whatever the argument, whichever side you take, it does not change the fact that I witnessed the process, and that perhaps someday in the future, my children and grandchildren will be recounting what it was like witnessing the exhumation and re-interment of my remains..