Travelling around Samosir, you can’t help but notice the hundreds of graves and shrines scattered around the edges of Lake Toba – it’s like one giant cemetery in honour of each families ancestors. I was stunned that the dead are lay to rest in incredibly lavish and expensive tombs, whilst their living relatives live alongside them in states of poverty.
In the past, custom required that the Bataks rebury the bones of their ancestors in a solemn ritual in a large monument. Many of today’s Bataks whom have become Christians have continued this tradition, in a different form, as exhuming the bones of their forefathers still holds religious meaning. An ancestor qualifies for exhumation if he has a great number of descendants, as they are held in great respect from both our world and the nether-world. Therefore, those that have many children and grandchildren can achieve a higher rank and be exhalted, but their descendants must be willing to hold a big feast. The bones are exhumed before the feast, as it is believed they can join the festivities before being laid to rest in a concrete tomb. This tradition was forbidden by protestant missionaries in the past, but a revival was seen after 1930, where the feast and gondang music were permitted, but the churches wanted to end the practise of sacrificing to ghosts.
During current times, the relatives of the deceased, who have migrated to Medan, Jakarta, and other cities in Indonesia, still feel the need to enhance their Batak identity by erecting a monument in their native village. This is to show the unity of their clan and so that the good fortune of their family may continue, as well as show surrounding clans how prosperous they are.
The most popular monument to be seen has a statue of the ancestor standing dressed in traditional Batak clothing, and underneath the statue are the small apartments for the bones of the various forefathers. These tombs are usually built up high so that they are clearly visible and the names of the forefathers buried there are engraved on a plaque.
It is such an amazing sight to see these tombs scattered around the island, but I feel it is unfair that so much money is spent on erecting these, whilst the living relatives live in dilapidated housing alongside them. Perhaps it would be an idea to spend more money on the living so that the lineage can continue in good health and receive a proper education to secure their own futures..