When death becomes entertaining!

Updated on Nov 13, 2007 06:24 PM IST

A cemetery-cum-entertainment complex in Indonesia aims to remove the eerie feeling associated with cemeteries.

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AFP | ByPresi Mandari, Indonesia

Indonesian mourners wearing black congregate by a lawn-fringed plot on the outskirts of the Indonesian capital as they await the arrival of the body of their relative and friend.

Once the funeral service is over, they have the choice of taking a dip in the Olympic-size pool nearby, rowing a boat across the lake or, in the not-too-distant future, having lunch at an Italian restaurant. In a city where the dead literally face eviction if their relatives fail to pay regular fees for the upkeep of their final resting place, a new and vast cemetery-cum-entertainment complex aims to fill a niche for the rich.

Arriving by helicopter to cut hours off a road trip to this sprawling facility 46 kilometres (30 miles) outside traffic-clogged Jakarta - another carrot for potential clients - the ambition of the developers is clear.

So far, just 25 hectares (62 acres) out of a planned 500 (1,235.5 acres) have been developed at San Diego Hills Memorial Park. Manicured walkways and tree-shaded roads wind through the hilly compound, a world away from public cemeteries in Indonesia which are invariably basic and often unkempt.

"We are inspired by the memorial park concept from the United States and Europe, where the beauty of well-maintained and manicured lawns removes the eerie feeling usually found in traditional cemeteries," said Suziany Japardy, an associate director of San Diego Hills.

While the tranquil cemetery itself is meant to be the key draw, it is just the start, and as far as Japardy is aware, this is the first cemetery in the world to also offer a full range of entertainment facilities for mourners. The idea, she said, is to regularly lure back the relatives of the deceased to visit their grave.

"After visiting the grave, our clients can enjoy the facilities here with their family, either by having a meal in our restaurant or doing some sports activities," she told AFP. Entertainment draws families back to relatives' graves. Mourners can take a rowboat out on the eight-hectare artificial lake, go for a jog or bicycle ride to enjoy the green, open space so lacking in Jakarta or dine at the 200-seat Italian restaurant which will soon open. Basketball courts and a football pitch are on the drawing board.

A wedding chapel, used twice since the facility opened in January, is perched on a hill overlooking the lake with splendid views of the waters and the graves.

A convention hall could be used for meetings, balls or fashion shows, said Japardy. Yuli, the 32-year-old wife of an agricultural businessman, has already bought five plots in the Muslim section, one each for her and her husband, the rest for close relatives.

Comfort and the maintenance pledge were the main factors swaying her decision, she said. "At first it's weird knowing that a recreational centre is inside the cemetery's complex, but in the end, I think this is good as you can make an excursion while visiting the family's grave," Yuli said.

"The place is comfortable, especially for a family that brings kids visiting the cemetery." The total cost for Yuli was 80 million rupiah (about 8,000 dollars), which secures the plots indefinitely - a growing concern in mostly-Muslim Indonesia, where land on the densely populated main island of Java is becoming scarce.

In Jakarta, officials issued new regulations in April warning relatives that graves would be taken back after three years if a fee was not paid.

"Because of the scarcity problem, we should make use of burial spaces for which the lease is not renewed by the heirs," said Muhammad Nahrowi, an official in charge of public cemetery management in the capital. "Every three years the plot must be renewed, otherwise the ownership will automatically expire and be transferred to others," he said. "We need to be stricter. There will be no prior warning for the family."

"There will always be people dying", says Evelyne, a 34-year-old Jakarta businesswoman, bought a plot at San Diego for her mother who died in April, as she was fed up with the uncertainty of the levies system.

"I don't want to put the grave of my beloved one at risk. Even though it's a bit far from my house, it doesn't matter as it will never be disturbed," she said. Linda Ibrahim, a sociologist from the University of Indonesia, said rapid infrastructure development in Indonesian cities and high population growth has caused the scarcity of land with have no economic value, such as cemeteries.

The Jakarta administration has already moved several cemeteries to the city's fringes to use the land for hotels, condominiums or office buildings, she said. Yet cemeteries are important for Asians, including Indonesians, she said, as many people believe it is the duty of the living to respect the dead by maintaining and visiting their graves.

This importance has created a traditional ritual of regularly visiting graves that "is strongly preserved, even for the urban people in the metropolitan city," she said.

San Diego Hills has tapped into these conditions to create a business opportunity, she said. And so far, it seems to be paying off. Some 1,500 units or 80 per cent of the first stage development of the plots have sold, including several 200-square-metre lots priced at 12 billion rupiah.

Only 150 bodies however have so far been buried. Japardy is certain the cemetery business will be good because "there will always be people dying, every day and everybody must die".

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