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How Catholicism influenced the Kayan in Tubau to honour their dead

Under a temporary hut made of wooden sticks and canvas, some 80 people gathered together at Sungai Pesu cemetery, near Tubau to attend All Souls’ Day mass.

Celebrated annually on Nov 2, it is a day to commemorate the souls of all Christians who have died.

The small congregation came not only from the nearby longhouses but also all around Sarawak who came home purposely to observe All Souls’ Day at the cemetery.

Preceding the mass on muddy ground without any chairs, the priest Rev Fr John Chia reminded the congregation that it was their duty to pray for the dead.

He also pointed out the Catholic Church teaches that the purification of the souls in Purgatory can be hastened by the prayers of the faithful on earth.

After the mass ended, the congregation spread out to their respective loved one’s tombs to pray and clean the grave sites.

Some 80 Catholic faithfuls attended the All Souls’ Day mass in Sungai Pesu, Tubau.

Kayan’s burial ground of different faiths

The faithfuls coming together to pray under the temporary shelter.

Located about an hour and half from Bintulu, the Sungai (river) Pesu cemetery was one of the earliest final resting places for the Kayan settlers near Tubau river who migrated from Balui river.

They were believed to have moved to Tubau basin at the beginning of the 19th century in search of better farmland.

Reportedly, the first two longhouses who buried their loved ones at Sungai Pesu cemetery were from Uma Pako and Uma Awai.

After more than 150 years since the Kayan settled in Tubau, the cemetery now laid rest those who were practicing Adat Bungan (old Kayan religion), Borneo Evangelical Mission and Catholicism.

However, it was hard to know whose tomb was the oldest there because there was no such things tombstones back then.

The earliest Christian graves there date back to the 1970s while most are marked by old rotting crosses.

Some of the old ‘salong’.

Before Catholicism came

Hawing Igang

Before the Kayan communities embraced Christianity, the practice of honouring the dead was almost unheard of.

This was why most old burial grounds were not maintained or taken care of. They were not allowed to cut any trees or clear the grave site.

Even at Sungai Pesu cemetery, some old salong (burial hut) were in various states of dilapidation.

According to one of the nearby residents Hawing Igang, there were so many dos and the don’ts back in those days.

“If somebody died, they were not allowed to carry the body across the longhouse passing other amin (family’s home) as it was considered bringing bad luck to other residents.

“Back then, they purposely designed the longhouse to have loose flooring. So that if someone died, the family would open up the floor and carefully pass the body to people below to carry to the cemetery.”

During the recent All Souls’ day, a group of children were seen playing while their parents and grandparents reciting the Rosary prayers.

This scene was never seen before as children back in the days were to hide away in a room both during the wake and funeral.

Sungai Pesu cemetery back then was only accessible by the river. In the olden days whenever they passed by any cemetery, the parents would cover their children faces, forbidding them to look at the burial grounds.

All of these were done believing it would protect the children from any harm or misfortune.

All Souls’ Day allows the communities to honour their dead loved ones.

After Catholicism came

When the Kayan in Tubau started to embrace Catholicism in the 1960s, it brought many changes to local customs, particularly when it came to funeral rites or honouring the dead.

The dead were given Catholic burials and every year on All Souls’ Day, the communities gather together at cemeteries to pray for them.

Despite this, some of the elders still believe some of the old customs. Some of them were quick to scold if they saw the younger ones straying away to the old graves buried in Adat Bungan.

According to Hawing, it is hard to locate any of these old graves anyway. Most of them are covered in bushes and even secondary forests.

The practice of remembering the dead brought by Catholicism allow the communities to clean and maintain their ancestral burial grounds.

Some of them even replaced the old wooden crosses with proper tombstones in honour of their loved ones.

If it were not for Catholicism, most of the old burial grounds such as the one in Sungai Pesu could easily be forgotten, overgrown by bush and forest.

Most of the old burial grounds such as the one in Sungai Pesu could easily be forgotten, overgrown by bush and forest if it were not for Catholicism.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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