Indonesia Banget 17: Graveyards in West Sumatra

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Last month, December 2011, I missed my Indonesia Banget post. I had it in mind what to write but a very unfortunate incident happened, my mom passed away. I guess from now on, 17 of each month is no longer special for sharing about my country. This date has more meaning for me.

I was planning to share about Indonesian people’s habit but I changed my mind as today is a month anniversary of my mom’s death. I am going to share about graveyards in West Sumatra. Why is it special? Because graveyard in West Sumatra is different compared to other parts in Indonesia.  In Jakarta, where I live in, graveyard is open to anyone who can rent the land. I don’t know exactly how much because different area has different rent fee. In West Sumatra, most graveyards are free because they belong to suku (in English it could be called as tribe).

Let me introduce you to suku before talking about graveyards.

West Sumatra is a matriarch land where bloodline runs through mother’s side. In most part of the world, be it in Europe, America or Asia…family names are always based on the father’s side, children don’t normally used their mother’s family name. In West Sumatra, although people don’t use family name, but their suku is always following their mother. My mother came from suku Melayu, therefore my brothers and I are also Melayu. My brothers married women from Java, their children no longer have suku because father can’t pass down their suku to their children. When I have children, my children will be Melayu just like me. If my brothers married women from west Sumatra, their children will follow their mother’s suku, they would not be considered as Melayu.

I hope you understand what suku is by now.

Most graveyards in Padang belong to certain suku. There are also public graveyards which are no different to any public graveyards in the world (I am going to ignore this public graveyards). Everyone who comes from a certain suku donates an amount of money to their chief and the chief will bought a land that will be used as graveyard for his suku. That graveyard will pass down through generations for years to come. When a member of the suku died, they will be buried in that land for free…no rent fee is required. Even after a hundred year, people from that suku can be buried there. The problem is, after a century the graveyard will be full. It would be difficult to find empty land. Fortunately, at least for this generation, old graveyards are only marked with nisan (a carved stone with name of the deceased). People in this generation often take off the nisan and bury another body on the same spot. Unfortunately for the future regeneration, people are starting to mark their family grave with cement and tiles. It would be difficult to cast away that thing.

My mother’s suku is planning to buy another land as the current land is getting almost impossible to bury another person. My mom was lucky because she could be buried next to her grandma and her mother (my grandma).

The disadvantage of this kind of graveyards is that husband and wife can’t be buried side by side because husband and wife come from different suku, therefore they will be buried in different graveyards. The other disadvantage is there is no graveyard keeper, all graveyards that belong to suku are not well-kept. Each grave is taken cared by family member. Some graves are left unattended with grass covering the grave. Take a look at my grandma from my father’s side (see the photos below ). She was buried in a very fertile land, plants are easy to grow there. I felt like hiking when I went to visit her grave. When I got to her grave, her grave was covered with grass. My cousin had to clean it first. He said he had cleaned it several months ago but because of the land’s condition, the grass and the plants had covered it again.

Tagak Batu Tradition.

In Padang, the capitol of West Sumatra, there is a Tagak Batu tradition. Tagak means stand and batu means rock, it means the day to put the nisan on the grave.

At first, the grave looks like this>>>

My mom's grave with green nisan

The body is wrapped in nothing white sheet that we called kafan. A piece of wood is placed on top of the body. The wood is not as strong as Christian coffin, the wood is very easy to break. Once the wood has broken, the soil on top of the wood will fall down and making the grave a bit flat. It usually happens on the second week after the burial. The family member will add more soil on top of it and they will then put the nisan on both sides of the grave, the head and the feet. The putting of the nisan is called Tagak Batu. It looks like this>>>

Usually, about one hundred days after the burial, the soil will become hard…and that is the time when people start putting little ‘house’ on top of the grave (see the first photo above).

In Islam Tradition, when we visit a grave, we pray for the deceased.

That’s all about my homeland graveyards. Hope you enjoy reading this. You can read more about Indonesia by clicking on the button up there.

Note: These photos are of my family, please DO NOT use them without my permission.


  1. Novia I am honored that you choose to share such things with us and it is interesting (and a little sad… :() to see the Traditions you keep for those who have passed on. May you always have them to keep your memories of your Mother with you.

    I send you a **big hug** to comfort you on your Day of Remembrance and to let you know all my best thoughts are with you still.

    1. Thank you so much Miyuki. Although it was sad but I was glad to learn this new fact about my homeland. I live in Jakarta my whole life and barely know anything about West Sumatra. So I decided to share this new knowledge.

  2. I didn’t know part of Indonesia lives in matriarchal ways, very interesting.
    In my country graves are made of marble and stone, not just soil and rocks, but your graves have interesting symbolism.

    1. I forgot which province apart from West Sumatra, and that one also has Matriachal way. As far as I know, I might be wrong, those are the only provinces with such way.

      With marmer must look beautiful. In Islam we must make grave as simple as possible. In many places here, there are still many graves that only use nisan, without the tiles decoration.

  3. This was a very interesting post and thank you for sharing the photos.
    I didn’t know about this matriarchal descendency in West Sumatra. It’s nice to know your mother’s and grandma’s graves are so close. I like the different steps. Here people are buried and the rest is taken care of by the people from the cemetery. It’s not a ritual but depends on the soil. You cannot put up a gravestone right away, like in your case as well, I guess 100 days too. People also plant on graves. After 25 years the grave is removed unless you pay quite a lot.

    1. Thank you Caroline.
      Here in Jakarta, the grave is also taken care by the cemetery people, but in Padang the family does the whole job by them selves, except for putting tiles. The grave is dug by family member and the soil also put down by family.

      The grave is also removed at certain year in Jakarta, in West Sumatra…they leave the skeleton, if the land is already full, and put new body near it. It is after all land that belongs to many generation

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