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The modernization of Iban eschatology: Iban burial ritual and afterlife beliefs in contemporary Kuching.


Existing studies of Iban burial and religion have focused on places where traditional practice has (at least until recently) continued. Motomitsu Uchibori (1978), Peter Metcalf (1975, 1976), and Cliff Sather (2003, 2012) have provided ethnographers with some of the fullest accounts available of the ways in which the world's peoples deal with death. Peter Kedit (1993), John Postill (2003, 2006), Robert Cramb (2007, 2010), and before them, Vinson Sutlive (1972, 1978, 1992), provide accounts of modernity as it has affected the Iban.

This Research Note focuses on the interface between Iban culture and modernity and examines how urbanization and globalization are contextualized in Kuching: specifically, it looks at how far the Ibans have gone to make their own modus vivendi, accommodating elements of traditional practice and beliefs about the afterlife in their Christian identity, and how traditional burial customs have been adapted and changed. It complements previously published studies of change and continuity in Iban ritual and beliefs following Anglican mission work (Varney 2010, 2011). John Peel's account of the encounter between Anglican Christianity and an African society (Peel 2000) provides a critical model for the present study.

The continuing process of adaptation in Iban mourning rituals and burials, and in beliefs about the afterlife, is considered by examining (1) adat pemati (a measure of social and personal worth in terms of the length of mourning and fines payable if mourning restrictions are broken), (2) sabak (chant describing the journey to the next world sung by a specialist wailer before burial), and (3) sebayan (the afterworld of the dead). By gathering information about the ways that leaving baya' (grave goods), observing mourning (serara 'bunga) and its ending (ngetas ulit) are continued, it is now possible to recognize the considerable extent to which "cultural blending" (Park 2011) has occurred in modern Kuching.

Key stages in contemporary burial rituals in Kuching, and the associated beliefs, are described:

* before the burial, including family gatherings, adat pemati, sabak and its alternatives;

* burial, Christian services, baya', grave ornaments;

* mourning, the use of ngetas ulit to end mourning, anniversaries of death and All Souls night; the associated beliefs in sebayan, soul and spirit taught by missionaries and leading to confusion among Iban Christians.


A qualitative approach was used to obtain data from contemporary interviewees, examining what an individual and family does after a death as a way of understanding their ideas about the afterlife. Pilot interviews were made in June 2010 with Anglicans and Methodists in three locations throughout Sarawak. In 201 l, structured interviews were conducted with some of the individuals suggested by Anglican church leaders, church members, and other informants. To supplement these, a similar number of informal interviews were added. (1)

The 2010 Census of Sarawak

The 2010 Malaysian census (Malaysia 2012) gives Sarawak's population as 2,471,140, composed of: Iban (30.3 per cent), Chinese (24.5 per cent), Malay (24.1 per cent), Bidayuh (8.4 per cent), Melanau (5.2 per cent), with smaller groups making up the remainder. Sarawak is 53.8% urbanized; 681,901 people, 28% of the State's population, live in the Kuching area. Forty-three percent of Sarawak's population are Christian, giving it the second highest proportion of Christians of any state in Asia, after the Philippines. (2)

For the Ibans of Sarawak, hill rice cultivation formed the core of their religious system. Padi cultivation has now been largely abandoned and this has affected every aspect of contemporary Iban life. Most Iban are now Christians, 76.3% in the 2010 census, an increase from 70% in the 2000 census, although they may also continue some traditional practices and beliefs.

Before burial

Adat Pemati

[Adat pemati] is said to be a powerful incentive, motivating individuals to achieve as much as they can before they die. (Sather 2003:192)

The period after a death brings family members together to find support as they deal with their loss and to make practical decisions. They turn to the church and its clergy to provide rituals and comfort, and consider what traditional customs to follow. Most families then discuss adat pemati, and whether sabak or its alternatives will be used.

In a longhouse setting, members of a bereaved family met with the longhouse elders on the night before burial, and before the sabak was sung, to consider the cause of death and the deceased's achievements and contribution to the Iban world. The adat pemati was then decided, it included the length of the mourning period and the amount of fines, referred to as adat, levied on those who broke specific rules of mourning. The amount was suggested by the deceased's immediate kin, and was then discussed and agreed upon by all. The longer the mourning period lasted the greater was the fine if it was broken. Sather writes:

For the Saribas Iban, the amount of the adat pemati is a matter of utmost concern, for it is determined by the personal achievements an individual attained during his or her lifetime, and so, in this highly competitive society, is seen as an important measure of social and personal worth (Sather 1996: 100).

Something very close to the traditional adat pemati of the Saribas and Krian tradition continues in Kuching, as part of the events during the days before burial. One of the cathedral clergy said that a fairly standardized pattern has developed when an Iban dies. After a death in the hospital, the body is commonly taken back home and laid on a mat, with blankets and other textiles around it, similar to the former sapat enclosure on the longhouse ruai.

Once relatives have gathered, as part of making the funeral arrangements they discuss the adat pemati, and decide how many nights should elapse before burial. The evening before burial is the key stage. Interviewees with extensive knowledge of Iban tradition said that the speeches telling the story of the dead person's life on the night before burial often follow the traditional format used in the Saribas and Krian. There is an apparently consistent order for three main speeches, with the speakers appointed by the family.

The first speaker describes the nature of the death and the last phase of the person's life. A second speaker goes through the tusut, or family tree, and mentions the original longhouse the person or his family was from. The history of the deceased's family, and his achievements and significant events in his life are mentioned, and the speaker may note the loss to the community that the person's death has brought. Their contribution to society and "moral life" is assessed at this stage by a senior person so that the level of adat pemati can be determined. The assessment is open to discussion, but generally there is fairly rapid agreement. The third speaker then announces the details of the burial arrangements, and confirms the length of the mourning period. People may continue to make further contributions about the deceased's life, and the speeches may continue all night. Much of the content of the speeches will go into the sabak sung before burial.

An alternative way of assessing the adat pemati was described by the son of an Anglican priest. Before the funeral rites he consulted an expert in adat pemati living in Kuching, and "following his advice we decided what adat level to use." When the guests come together on the eve of burial they are told how the assessment has been made. There may be further discussion or criticism if the decision has been made earlier. Another innovation in Kuching is the appointment of a "master of ceremonies" for the funeral night.

The traditional ritual specialists

There were three major categories of Iban ritual specialists and each had some role in dealing with death. The tukang sabak, usually women, were soul guides who sang the sabak dirge which led the soul of the deceased on its journey to the afterworld. The lemambang, or bards, might contribute at a later stage. The manang were shamans and were also available to give some practical comfort, a role which could be similar to that of Christian ministers. In modern Kuching manang advertise themselves by word of mouth. Two informants said that there are manang used by all races in Kuching. Malay bomoh, officially out of bounds for Muslims, advertise themselves more widely and overtly. Some Ibans are said to use them. An informant added that the Chinese temple mediums, who make contact with the dead, are also consulted by people of all races, including Iban Christians.

The sabak dirge

Iban ritual poetry often involves a narrative of travel and the sabak is one example. In some Iban areas there was a distinction between the dirge sung immediately after death, when the corpse was still in the house, and a more elaborate sabak sung after burial. Uchibori suggests that it was only in the early 20th century that the Saribas Iban began to use elaborate sabak dirges prior to burial, "probably following a general model of death dirges used among other Iban groups" (Uchibori 1978: 75). Perhaps because of this the sabak has in recent years remained in use longer in the Saribas than in most other Iban areas.

Uchibori suggests that when the tukang sabak sent her soul to guide the newly departed soul to its place in the afterworld, this appeared to conflict with the belief that antu of the dead "hover in the sphere of the living" for some while after burial. Another possibility is that it shows that antu can be bilocal. Uchibori reports flexibility about the length of the sabak dirge. It could be adjusted so that the description of the journey to the next world is completed just before the burial party departs for the graveyard. Later adaptation of the sabak by Christians seems to confirm and continue this flexibility.

From a Saribas point of view, their complex burial rituals express respect, or basa, for a deceased person, which they say is lacking among other Iban (Uchibori 1978:47).

Christian attitudes and adaptation

William Howell, a Eurasian priest, worked in the Batang Lupar for 50 years and wrote for the Sarawak Gazette and Sarawak Museum Journal as well as missionary publications (Howell, 1911, 1963). Howell described a situation in 1880 which can also be found today. Christian burials had to be conducted in the intervals left by the professional mourners (Howell, 1880). He unsuccessfully attempted to stop Christians employing sabak singers, believing the dirge conflicted with Christian teaching. Other clergy encouraged a Christian form of the sabak, and several examples were described in the 1930s (Anon. 1936).

The incorporation of Christian beliefs about the afterlife by sabak singers, as they described the journey into the next world, and without prompting by missionaries, was reported by missionaries working in the Saribas before the Japanese occupation. Two Anglican priests, Wilfred Linton and Jack Sparrow, served in Betong. There are several examples of children being named after Linton, and "Jalai Linton" is still the address of St. Augustine's school in Betong. Linton and Sparrow remained in people's memories long after their return to England, and they were incorporated into some versions of the sabak. Later, Frederick Rajit, an Anglican priest from Betong, learned the sabak dirge from his mother. It included adaptations used for a Christian funeral, with the journey continuing beyond sebayan and past churches to a more heaven-like conclusion (Rajit 1969).

Richards' 1981 Iban-English dictionary gives an example of a sabak adaptation from an informant, Minda of Julau, a location close to the Krian and Saribas (Richards 1981:318).
 Versions are brought up to date, e.g., by use of outboard engines
 on the Mandai. Minda of Julau has altered her sabak so that it can
 be used either for Christians or non-Christians. The journey is
 made flying in a "boat" of cloth (pua') carried by the Wind: route
 and theme are the same but the flight passes beyond the furthest
 confines of Mandai with its demons and past the Gate of the Heavens
 (Pintu Langit). There the party meets stars (bintang) and moon
 (bulan), and a halt is made at the house of Segadu 'who presents
 the new soul with a magical flying coat. They go overland to the
 ancestors' house. From it (if non-Christian) they can see across
 the stream to the Christian house and beyond into the Christian
 Heaven, Menoa Raja Tuan Pederi (3), which is described in
 apocalyptic terms.

Contemporary sabak singers continue to change their chants, accepting the possibility of adaption as identified by Uchibori. in the Saribas, a sabak singer, Simba ak Gelau, who had devoted two years to learning the traditional dirge, said she used the traditional form or, although not herself a Christian, adapted it for Christians. (4) Simba talked about her sabak performance at a Christian burial. She said her experience was like a meditation, and it included a visualization with a Christian content. Her understanding of this experience seemed to be more symbolic and less literal than the way the sabak has generally been described as the taking of the singer's soul to sebayan.

The journey included in Simba's chant described leaving the longhouse, seeing a butterfly, hearing other people in the next world, passing through doors and climbing steps, hearing and seeing malikat (angels), and then taking the soul of the dead person to the Christian sebayan. To reach this, she crossed the titi rawan, a narrow bridge between the world of the living and the world of the dead. She then continued, passing through the world of the dead where others lived, and then saw large churches in a place where Alla Taala was living. There were flowers, lights, houses, and people who were recognizable. I asked if she had seen Jesus there, "bisi' Isa?" and she said "no." Simba's account is consistent with the understanding expressed by many Christian Ibans that after death their journey continues beyond sebayan to God's world or heaven. Simba said that three sabak singers were known to her in the Betong and Saribas area and each of them adapted the chant for a Christian burial. A priest who had worked in Betong confirmed that several funerals there had included Christian sabak singers.

A similar sabak journey, with Christian markers on the journey after death, was described by an Anglican layman, originally from the Saribas, but living in retirement in Kuching. He added that when Christians arrived at the bridge, it was a kind of test. They were in danger of falling off and returning to earthly life, but as a kind of ghost. He didn't refer to Christian ideas of judgement without prompting, and then said that this wasn't the same thing. Christians would normally continue their journey to an area of churches, and then to serga, the area of heaven. A laywoman complemented this account: "we talk about it as being like a series of bus stops. The journey takes a long time. The last stop is the river flowing from mandai."

Burial and the sabak in Kuching

In Kuching the ritual specialists have been supplemented or replaced by outside agents, including Anglican priests, catechists and readers. The Christian prayers they use show a move from the local power and oral knowledge of the traditional ritual specialists to the cosmopolitan authority and literate knowledge of the Christian priest (Postill 2001).

The priest is expected to visit on the three nights leading up to the eve of burial, recognized as the usual period kept in Kuching. A young informant said that for the three nights his grandfather's body was in the house, people were not supposed to sleep.
 So we gambled and drank a lot. You could say that we were 'bumming
 around' for three days. It's a way of bringing the old ways into
 the modern world. We also left food out for the deceased.

Meanwhile, the priest leads prayer and worship, and hymns are sung in the Iban language. This is followed by the sharing of food, and during this the singing of the sabak, or its modern equivalent, is commenced.

Informants in Kuching said that although a form like the sabak is used, it is not usually sung by professional singers, although the journey to the next world might be described and updated. An Anglican laywoman, describing her mother's funeral in Kuching, said that it included "a modern way of doing the sabak." About 300 people came to the house on the night before the funeral service in the cathedral. For this informant, telling the deceased's life journey had became the equivalent of the traditional sabak telling the journey in the next world. She suggested that when her uncle told the story of her mother's life, and her continued life after death with God, "it was like the sabak". A priest commented that the way it's done now is "a way of bringing things up to date," it's more like a biography than a traditional version referring to the spirit world. This is the way it is used during the night before burial. Some of the dirge music may be used, but the priest did not think this was in conflict with Christianity.

A senior Anglican priest preferred to differentiate between the traditional sabak and the contributions made during a contemporary funeral. He said that these are
 not sabak so much for me as a way of remembering the life, their
 story, in the form of a dirge, but not as a ritual which the
 lemambang would normally have done. The modern adaptation is to
 sing some of the music, in that style.

A few informants said that sabak singers are used in Kuching, but have to be brought there from 100 or more miles away. Methodists in Kuching were known to use the traditional sabak more often than Anglicans. They bring a sabak singer from Kapit, in the area evangelized by the Methodists, as there are no sabak singers available locally.

Clergy and others interviewed in Kuching expressed uncertainty about whether the younger generation would continue to use sabak singers. Unlike those of their parents' generation, they don't generally believe that the sabak has to be sung. The clergy said younger people have seen a variety of funeral customs in Kuching and have reassessed the role of the sabak and considered its alternatives.

An order of service for placing the body in the coffin is often used. During this service, the widow or widower may put their ring on the finger of the deceased. Small items of clothing and jewelry are also often placed in the coffin. Most informants said that this was a suitable way to dispose of these things, and didn't link it with a belief about their use in a future life.


Traditional baya'

The Iban custom of placing baya', or grave goods, in the coffin or on the grave was an essential part of burial rites. Giving baya' remains widespread not only among non-Christian Ibans but also among those who have embraced Christianity. Although Christians often say that it is their non-Christian relatives who bring baya' to the cemetery, it is apparent that many Christians do so too.

Baya' is given because Ibans believe that the world of the dead is parallel to this one. A senior Iban priest said
 there are elements of truth in the Iban tradition about how the
 dead are believed to still be alive which we want to continue. The
 grave goods are given because the living believe the dead continue
 menial work and therefore need equipment in sebayan. If baya' isn't
 given, the family would have dreams of their dead in a miserable
 state, and would fear that the dead might come and take their life.
 Or if someone receives a message from the dead in which the dead
 are complaining they pass it on, and what they have told you comes

A retired Iban lawyer said her cousin's husband was buried at a church in the suburbs of Kuching. The family wanted to put his worldly possessions on the grave. They still believed he would continue to live the way he lived when he was still alive. An Iban priest, whose father was a shaman, said that baya' is given because the dead continue menial work and therefore need equipment in sebayan. If the family doesn't give baya', they would dream of the dead being in a miserable state, or fear the dead might come back to take their life or otherwise disrupt them. If people have a dream about a dead person, they follow it up by taking food, drink and other things to the grave. The priest said "even Christians therefore give a few things."

A senior Iban priest said that a piece of iron, kering semengat, [translated by Richards as "soul strengthener"], was put on or near the grave to protect the soul of the deceased. "The Iban would never leave the longhouse without taking a knife to cut trees and for protection, so if you go on an adventure to the next world you need it too." Another priest explained the graveside iron differently. He said that there is considerable fear of the occult and of the spirit world, by Christians as by others. "If you really believe in it you are playing with the unseen, it's a dangerous game, and you need strength to handle it. That's the very reason they ask for a keris [i.e., kering] at the grave." There were several examples in the non-Christian cemeteries at Kuching of knives which have been brought and thrust into the ground alongside grave slabs.

Larger items, such as household utensils, and sometimes weapons, are brought to the grave, even in cemeteries in Kuching. In the past they would have included bedding, hunting and fishing equipment. A laywoman commented: "it's like moving house." Nowadays gold jewelry, clothes, bicycles, cookers, radios and TVs may be found, either left outside the cemetery or on individual graves. They eventually get cleared away. A laywoman said "we always used to bury a big jar, tajau. It was a prestige thing and meant you were well off. The jars and gold ornaments were left because we believed they needed them in the next world." A layman said "I saw one man who brought his saw to the grave, and a lumberjack who had died was given his working tools. How will they be used in sebayan?" he asked, showing that he, himself, thought them unnecessary. A priest reported asking a family why they had brought a big trolley bag, including an ilang sword used in head hunting, to the cemetery. They told him the things would be needed in the next world and the priest asked them "is he going to fight? There's no fighting there. They could have thrown all the baya' into the jungle in the past, now it's a problem for those who maintain the cemeteries."

Several informants said that Iban adat forbids the burning of personal items such as clothing. A layman said "if we burnt clothing it would feel to us as if we were burning the person's semengat. So we want to put the clothes somewhere, and put them in the grave." Another said "sometimes putting things in the coffin or grave is just for convenience, it's not really baya' at all." Along with clothing put in the coffin or on the grave, there may be a small amount of money and gold items such as jewelry. A laywoman said "my sister-in-law died three years ago. She had a dream before her death, which asked for specs, handphone, and other small things to be buried with her. So we followed her wishes." A different understanding which shows how a traditional belief is continued was provided by a laywoman who said she had put some clothing and jewelry in her mother's coffin. "We do understand this as separating us in this world from the spirit of the dead person who is in their own world. It's as much something for Christians to do as for non-Christians."

Once the officiating priest has left the grave after the committal service, the majority of those interviewed said they or others placed other small items on top of the coffin, such as pots, plates, and knives. A layman said: "personal items were put in my father's coffin. The priest was not there when the baya' was prepared and put in the coffin, so a priest could not see it being done." A priest recognized that people often do bring a bag of the dead person's things, including food, clothing, and ornaments, such as small items of jewelry. "They put these in the grave after I have finished the prayers and when they think I am not looking." The grave is then covered and a temporary name marker put on it.

The symbolic meaning of baya' is also recognized. For example, in areas where access is still only by river, graves may have canoes, sometimes with outboard motors on them. A senior priest commented "you wouldn't think they actually believe they need it, but the boats are there because their lives are centered on the river; it feels right to put them there." He added "it's like moving house. You find things like gardening tools, chairs, radio, TV, and even a wheelchair, or a motorcycle, following death on a road." This priest's understanding highlights levels of meaning beyond the literal which the Iban have developed.

An Iban lawyer said that baya' is mainly the belongings of people, the things someone enjoyed in this life, such as favorite mats, blankets, sarongs, pieces of gold, or a watch that they want buried with them. The family would rather put them in the grave than allow anyone to take them away. He showed his understanding that grave goods have a symbolic rather than literal meaning by giving the example of pottery being smashed because the family don't want others to collect it, but saying it could still be used in sebayan. Larger items may be taken to the graveyard and burned there. In his view physical destruction by burning doesn't prevent possible use in the afterlife. This informant said "I'm not very sure if burning them will take them to sebayan, I can assume it does. There would be no point in burning money, of course."

A further kind of baya', sometimes used in Kuching, is baya pandang. This is hung over a grave or over a corpse during the funeral night. Personal items of clothing and equipment are put inside a container. It remains closed until ngetas ulit, described below, when it is opened and the objects distributed.

Several informants said food and drinks were left on graves in the past and were considered as part of baya', left for the deceased's spirit. Food and drink are still frequently found among the items brought and left on graves. They are seen left in a glass or teapot, but not poured out as libations. The addition of sealed canned drinks shows how an older custom has merged with a newer one. Most informants added that this is something most Christians do to continue a traditional custom and show respect to the dead. It is an example of a custom remaining without the belief associated with it being questioned. It was for practical reasons that a priest said that the food should be removed, otherwise it would be eaten by birds, monkeys, or rats. Ibans often also put money on graves in small denominations, but replica Chinese money is not used. (5)

Items which are not part of baya'

The using of replica objects on graves is firmly rejected, and would not be seen as part of baya'. The only exception would be for an Iban married to a Chinese, if the Chinese relatives brought replica grave goods, the Iban would accept them as an act of hospitality. But informants were clear they would not be considered by the Iban themselves as baya'. The Iban attribute a level of symbolic meaning to their baya', but without using replica goods.

Distinctions between objects which are, or are not, part of baya' are not always clear. The son of a priest, talking about the rather different way his family prepared for his father's burial, said "we put only a Bible in my father's coffin because he was a priest." When asked about the grave itself he said "we just put flowers and drinks, rather than food or other things." He thus made his own distinction from drinks and food which, unlike others, he would have regarded as baya'. A layman said "The undertaker said we should put something in the coffin to absorb the dry ice. We put some of her sarongs in the coffin but it was only for practical reasons." Other informants suggested that the [statues of] angels put on the graves by Christians could be thought of as replacing baya' or the sungkup. (6)

The use of flowers provides a good example of the cultural blending that can now be observed in contemporary mourning rituals. Flowers are part of urban modernity and are expected to be left at the grave during Christian burials in Kuching. There are flower sellers outside Christian and other cemeteries. There was no tradition of using flowers in Iban culture, but it has became almost universal that people now take flowers, and also light a candle on the grave. Just as in the western world, flowers may be artificial or real. When asked about the meaning of flowers, informants said they had no religious significance; "it is what everybody does."

The changing use of baya'

Only a minority of informants felt that Christians should not give baya'. A layman said "My family were clear they didn't want to give any baya' or put anything in the coffin when my mother died. 'We come into the world naked and we leave it naked,' so we don't need to put anything in the coffin for use in the next world." A layman said: "I have followed the Sidang Injil Borneo (Borneo Evangelical Church) for four years. They are very strict, they don't allow baya', or even clothes to be put in the grave." One informant, a layman, added that non-Christians are now much influenced by Christians in Kuching. "Very few give baya'. They feel that they don't need to do that kind of thing now."

A further reason for the decreasing use of baya' is the potential threat of grave robbers. Several informants referred to past instances of objects being taken from cemeteries. The Anglican and other cemeteries employ security guards at certain times to deal with the threat.

Baya' and the Church

The Anglican parishes in Kuching jointly manage their cemeteries. They have rules well-known to church members about what may be taken to, or left at, the grave, and the clergy frequently ask people not to bring baya'. A layman said Christians are told to stop baya', they have heard it said quite strongly that nothing should be put in the coffin, in the grave, or on the grave.

A priest said: "As a priest you have to be careful. I tell them first that the diocesan rules and regulations are clear, and that baya' is not allowed in the church cemetery. But I know if I handle it wrongly they'll spend the three nights [before burial] debating it. The pressure of the relatives can be very strong. The people will still bring things, even a TV and a motorcycle to the cemetery. We have to accommodate it, we have to live with it. So we have a place for the things in a corner of the cemetery." Most of the Anglican cemeteries are cleaned up at the end of the day, and, if possible, bulky items are burned. Other items are moved to a designated area at the edge of the cemetery. Eventually they will be destroyed.

A senior priest said: "people have been saying to me that it's easier to live a Christian way of life because you don't have to be bothered by baya', and all these rituals. We have a general policy for all the clergy who perform funerals. This includes advising people not to put things in the coffin, and this is generally accepted because of the fear of grave robbers. When we talk to them we need to ask why they want to give baya' when someone dies."

The priest recognized that some Christians do give what could be considered as baya', such as ornaments, clothing, or other small things such as a knife. The clergy do let people do that because it's not the complete baya' as used in the past. One senior Anglican priest suggested the preference for burning or destroying the deceased's possessions, which the Church suggests, is unnecessary. He did not feel that the use of baya needed to be stopped, alluding to the adat prohibition against burning personal items. "I feel people should put things in the grave rather than burn them."

After burial

The mourning period

The clergy have a major role in giving support during bereavement. An Iban priest said
 the best opportunity to share with the bereaved, and to talk to
 those who know little of Christianity when they are more rested, is
 during the three nights after burial. They are then more able to
 listen to the message, the family members can be together for
 prayer and fellowship, they have no special agenda. I share with
 them the assurance of eternal rest. That the departed are returning
 to their heavenly Father. It reminds everyone of the time it will
 come to all of them.

The length of mourning, usually determined before the burial by adat pemati, varies greatly. In some rural areas the custom remains for Christian and non-Christian relatives alike to keep up to three months of mourning to show their sense of loss and to express their love for the deceased. The Conference of Dayak chiefs held by the Tuan Muda at Skrang, 1863, agreed that mourning should be no longer than three months "to reduce the hardships that observing mourning imposed on the survivors" (Sandin 1980:140). In practice, the shorter period also prevented loss of working time.

During the period, loud noises, singing and dancing were forbidden, and if radios and TVs were used, they should be on low volume. Most people are conscious of the level of adat pemati and respect family members in mourning when they encounter them.

In Kuching, at the time when adat pemati is discussed, the length of mourning also has to take into account practical circumstances. People have to return to their usual residence, which is likely to be some distance away, so only close family members can be expected to keep a strict mourning period. The length of mourning has also been influenced, and sometimes lengthened, by the customs of their Muslim neighbors. A priest described this as "an intermarriage of the different cultures." Periods of 7 days, 30 days, 40 days, 100 days and even one year are observed. These are "not Iban ideas and they aren't Christian either." The end of mourning is understood by many of the Ibans interviewed as a practical rather than religious custom. At its end, many make use of the opportunity to share food and drink, particularly if mourning caused them to miss Christmas or New Year celebrations.

The timing of the ngetas ulit ritual, if it is held at the end of mourning, seems to be variable, depending on the wishes of the family. An Iban laywoman said "nowadays it's getting shorter. My sister-in-law died in December 2010. She had insisted there should be no general mourning, just a week should be kept by the close relatives. So we held ngetas ulit immediately at the end of one week." An Iban layman said: "we do things after death out of respect for our family. We kept a period of 100 days mourning for both my parents. We could have kept only 40 days but my family chose the longer period to show greater respect. At the end we had a simple mass in our house." An Iban laywoman said "a mourning period of 3 months was kept for my mother, sometimes it's 6 months. The closer your relationship, the longer the period it is kept. There are no closed curtains, and candles are lit so that the soul knows where to go when it returns."

Ngetas ulit, baya' pandang and serara' bunga

In the past, the end of mourning, ngetas ulit, would have been held after a head had been brought into the longhouse. Later this was sometimes replaced by the arrival of a serving or retired field force or other military person. An Iban layman said
 I used to keep ngetas ulit strictly in the longhouse. It prevented
 people going out, brushing their teeth, using the well; they had
 untidy hair and looked like the devil. People became unhealthy and
 dirty, as if they had come out of the jungle. They would look scary
 and miserable.

Following ngetas ulit, a manang performed the ceremony of serara' bunga, literally, 'sever the flower.' (7) The manang symbolically cut a plant stalk representing the deceased's dead plant image or counterpart-soul from its clump of living plant images belonging to the other members of his or her bilik family. The act reflected a belief that the bilik is a unity and that a dead family member must to be separated from living family members, just as a flower when it dies should be cut off from the common rootstock that it shares with others in order to make room for new flowers (Sather 2003: 218).

Until serara' bunga was performed, the living had the continuing duty of giving things for the use of the dead person, who was not yet regarded as having an independent existence. A layman said the semengat of the deceased makes itself known to the relatives until they carry out serara' bunga. He gave examples which appeared to confirm this: people heard sounds made by the deceased, such as washing or cleaning utensils, the relatives felt sick, their rice cooked quickly and their cooked rice went moldy.

Although there is now unlikely to be a manang to perform serara' bunga, the box of baya' pandang hung over a corpse before the funeral is regularly prepared by Christians in Kuching. The cutting of the rattan cord tied around the baya' pandang box, and the distribution of the deceased's personal items which had been kept in it, is often carried out at the end of mourning. Explaining why ngetas ulit is retained by many Christian Ibans in Kuching, a layman with considerable experience of working with ethnographers, said that many Iban still believe the semengat of the deceased does not settle in sebayan until after ngetas ulit has been carried out. However, a senior Iban priest suggested that people using ngetas ulit do not link it to any traditional religious belief. "There is clearly no reason not to use the traditional rituals to end mourning," he said. "They have no specifically religious meaning and they are useful to mark the end of mourning."

Michael Buma, the former diocesan education secretary, produced a series of services which adapted Iban rites, including a Christian service for ngetas ulit which is widely used today (Buma, n.d.). This provides for people removing their mourning patch and changing from their mourning clothes into new clothes. The service also provides for the priest to symbolically cut and dispose of the hair of the mourners, which they have left uncut since the death. Several of the Anglican clergy make regular use of this service and said they had been asked to cut peoples' hair and it was a way that helped them to start all over again. A senior Iban priest said "all the Ibans normally use the Christian service for ngetas ulit, at a time the families choose. I am not always asked to cut someone's hair, but I do put on a new baju (shirt) for them." The Christian service may be used as an opportunity for a church congregation to join with the bereaved family. A priest in Kuching said "a Christian version of ngetas ulit is used after 30 days. It brings together the local church community with the deceased's family and friends."

Another reason to hold ngetas ulit, or a Christian version of it, was mentioned by a senior Iban priest. The traditional belief was that if a spouse has died, the marriage continues until ngetas ulit, after which the widow or widower is free to marry again. An Iban priest said
 Christians are happy if you skip it now and just say prayers.
 Especially in Kuching city, they want to forget about it, as with
 other old things. Some say there shouldn't be any mourning period;
 if the person has gone to heaven, we should rejoice, that's the

When asked if ngetas ulit helped people to come to terms with their loss, the priest said, "it is a way of showing respect for the dead and for the bereaved. We should accept their sadness, not suggest they should rejoice. For me it would take time before I could recover from a death of someone close to me."

A layman said that serara' bunga was not allowed by his church. "The priest thinks it is contradictory because Christians can keep on remembering the deceased with their prayers. We are not supposed to think of the dead becoming separate from us as serara' bunga would imply."

Other mourning customs: the black patch and Gawai Antu

In the longhouse, Iban were expected to wear old clothes while in mourning, but it has become widespread in Kuching that mourners put on a black cloth patch instead. An Iban layman gave an explanation: "if the mourning was for a month we would have tied something on our wrist and cut it off later, calling it ngetas ulit. We have adapted this and now we use a black patch pinned to the shoulder, normally on the left side. We had no clothing to attach it to before (when clothing was only worn from the waist down)." An Iban priest said that people think wearing the patch is a Christian custom which has replaced what happened in the past when people would wear simple dull-colored clothing during mourning. A senior Iban laywoman said that the idea probably comes from the Chinese. "My father did it when my mother died. He asked all of us to wear a black square patch. We should not wear anything flowery, and there should be no singing or entertainment during the mourning period. He put a sticker on the radio saying 'no entertainment only news.'" An Iban layman said "now we wear black cloth for 100 days or longer, like the Chinese. It's always black, I don't know why, the Chinese use other colors. Patches of black cloth are given out after a funeral. People wear them to show respect. It doesn't conflict with Christian ideas. Later, a priest takes off the cloth and burns it." Several informants noted that quite commonly people only put the patch they have been given on just before the ngetas ulit ceremony.

An Iban priest said after the manang had performed serara' bunga, which they believed separated the dead from the living, the Iban in the Saribas and other areas would plan to hold a Gawai Antu. The idea has remained in the Saribas that until a gawai antu is held, the departed cannot reach Mandai, their final resting place. This final stage of mourning may occur many years later. A priest asked,
 thinking about Gawai Antu are we thinking about all our relatives,
 inviting them back, for a final separation, after which there will
 be no more memorials for them? It's not very often done in the
 Batang Lupar, in the Saribas they still do, as they do a lot of
 things not done in other areas. It's becoming a competition between
 longhouses, they can say if your longhouse has done this much, we
 can do more.

Other informants questioned the tradition and asked why, if they had carried out ngetas ulit and serara' bunga, was it necessary to have a further mourning ceremony. Organizational problems, costs, and conversion to Christianity have led many longhouse communities to consider abandoning it, although they are reluctant to formalize such a decision.

Christian and customary burial rites

The Iban language burial services used in the Anglican Church have been taken from translations of the Church of England Book of Common Prayer and Alternative Services, and more recently the services produced by Michael Buma and Roman Catholic Bishop Galvin (Buma, n.d., Galvin n.d and 1966). When they hold burial services, the clergy have an opportunity to meet people and share the Christian message at a time when they are receptive and in need of comfort and support. Clergy informants reported that they found people are confused about Christian teaching on the afterlife. There is a need to help them to have more understanding. Said one Iban priest, "I want to help them and give them an opportunity to think about death and life eternal."

The body of a Christian may be brought from home, an undertaker's premises, or the hospital and taken directly to the cemetery for the interment and burial service, or the body may first be taken into the church for the first part of the funeral service or a full requiem mass. During a church service, the officiating clergy will give a short homily, and a family member will speak. A priest said that if he felt there hadn't been much contact with the family, he would say more during the service. At the end of the service, the coffin is opened, with a glazed cover protecting the body, and people come forward to pay their respects, and then do so to the waiting family members.

A senior Iban priest said: "holding a requiem at the time of burial depends on the family. If relatives have to return home, they may have a requiem along with the funeral service. Others might have a requiem or memorial service later."

At the cemetery the closing part of the funeral service takes place. The coffin is placed in the grave and the priest and others throw handfuls of earth onto it. Once the priest has left the graveside, as described earlier, other small items, such as pots, plates and knives are often placed on top of the coffin before the grave is covered.

Along with the services used by Anglicans were Iban customary rites, often used in addition to Christian rituals. An example comes from 1962, when Tom Harrisson gave one of his seemingly patronizing accounts of an Iban Anglican priest, who sought the appropriate object to bury with the body of a prematurely dead infant. The priest's visit to the Sarawak Museum provides an example of how someone who was both an urban dweller and a Christian sought to include traditional Iban customs following the death of his child. Harrisson reported:

A touching instance of the modern dilemma happened a few weeks ago in Kuching. An Iban priest came to us for advice on how he could properly mourn for his youngest daughter, who had just died age 3 months, in a Government hospital. The difficulty was that he wished to observe a prohibition in public and otherwise show grief, both as an Iban and Christian; being a man of principle, he recognised that (as an Iban) death at this age did not automatically involve such prohibitions; the parent must first demonstrate a desire for lull responsibility by placing an ivory bangle in the coffin, thus providing a (non-Christian) substitute for the missing dentition and (to simplify the matter here), upgrade the child's age in death. We hadn't an ivory bangle to spare, but provided an equivalent Ming dish. Our good friend then felt free to wear a black armband with his priestly habit (Harrisson 1962).

Cemeteries and grave clearing

Some Anglican cemeteries are immaculate. At Quop, a largely Bidayuh village about 10 miles from Kuching, the cemetery next to the church has been in use by Anglicans since the 1850s. It is clean, as the Christians there adhere to the instruction that nothing should be put in the coffin, in the grave, or on the grave. Only flowers and candles are found.

Iban tradition forbade the cutting down of trees or vegetation in the graveyard, but some Iban leaders, recognizing that other races, especially the Chinese and Malays, do clear their graveyards regularly, have suggested that the Iban should do the same. Iban in positions of authority in Kuching have supported the idea of grave clearing; one said that it showed how Iban culture could develop and change. The Sarawak Dayak National Union, SDNU, organizes grave clearing regularly at the Jalan Chawan cemetery. (8) The custom of clearing graves has also been introduced in association with the celebration of Gawai Dayak, itself introduced by the government as a holiday period for all Dayaks in Sarawak.

In the past a langkau was built over a grave in Christian cemeteries. They are not now allowed, partly because of the risk of them becoming breeding places for mosquitoes. Dayak cemeteries in Kuching are not controlled as others are by Anglican parishes, and langkau and grave goods are in evidence. At the Jalan Chawan Cemetery there are up to a dozen langkau sheds, with four corner posts and roofs of corrugated zinc, some painted green or grey to resemble atap. Most of the graves seen there had crosses, some elaborate, some with names and photos; the letters RIP appeared frequently. People who mark graves with crosses are clearly aware of Christian usage, even though they may not be Christians themselves. However, on most graves there was an assortment of baya': small-denomination coins, teapots, parang, plates, cutlery, food and drink.

All Souls' Day

Missionaries introduced the keeping of All Souls Day to remember the Christian dead and it became universal under Bishop Mounsey after 1909. At that time it also offered an alternative Christian ritual for the Chinese, who had their own cemeteries and the annual Qing Ming festival for prayer to the dead and paying respect to their ancestors. The Anglicans held torch-lit processions around Kuching, and then assembled at the cemetery on the eve of All Souls' Day.

Attending church services and going to the cemeteries on All Souls Day has remained a way in which the majority of Iban Anglicans in Kuching remember departed members of their families. A senior Iban priest said All Souls Day "shows that Christians can also have a connection with the dead, confirming that 'the dead are still alive in Christ.'" Another Iban priest said "we explain that All Souls' Day is not a requirement of Christianity, but most people do feel they should go to the cemetery then."

Christians attend church services to remember departed family members. Until recently the names of all the deceased would have been read out at mass and the clergy would then have led the Christians to the graveyard. The lists of names read became very lengthy. In the cathedral, reading 4,000 names took one hour and the diocese has introduced changes, although a priest reported that there was considerable opposition. Only some names are now to be read. Other names are written down and put in a box.

Clergy are not now expected to go the cemetery with the families. A priest said that so many people gathered there and drank excessively that the bishop didn't want the clergy to be part of it. Families are told to take their own flowers and candles there, but not take food or other items. The parishes organize clearing their cemeteries before All Souls' Day and afterwards. Not all attend the church service but most Iban Christians do gather at the cemeteries. People clean the individual graves, light candles and say prayers of thanks for their family members. A senior Iban priest said "we suggest that people leave candles but not candlesticks, and we employ a security guard at the cemetery on All Souls' night to prevent things being stolen." Some, perhaps the majority, continue to take food, drink and other things to the cemetery on All Souls' Day as they do at the time of burial. In practice, much of what is brought, which now includes rice, tuak, soft drinks, beer, cigarettes and betel chewing material, is shared by the family gathering at the gravesite.

Several clergy said that it is common for non-Christians to copy Christian observance of All Souls Day. They take their own candles and light them on their own family graves.

Anniversaries of the dead

Anniversaries of the death of a close family member, days marking particular stages in the afterlife journey and the end of mourning, or the 3rd, 40th or 100th day after death, and also Christmas, Easter, and Gawai Dayak are observed in several ways.

Communication between the dead and their living relatives was reported frequently. An Iban priest said that people often told him that they saw their dead relatives three or four days after their burial. "They ask me if it is real. I find it difficult to explain; it's better for me to say I'm not sure." During the 100 day period after a death many people said they have dreams, or see visions of the dead. In the past this is when a manang would organize the separation of the dead from the living. Christians continue to mark the end of this period, and many said that marking anniversaries and other periods of time after their close relatives' death was helpful to them.

Many Iban Christians attend a service in church, such as the daily morning eucharist in the cathedral, on these occasions. Many give flowers in memory of the deceased. Most people also put a notice in the daily English language newspaper on the date of ngetas ulit, as well as the anniversary of their relative's death. An innovation suggesting a belief in the departed's awareness of earthly life and continuing communication with them was described by one layman. After attending the cathedral eucharist on the anniversary day of his mother's death, he would take that day's newspaper to the grave; "it's a modern custom we've introduced; it shows how strongly we think the dead have a connection with us."

Whether or not they attend a service, most people go to the graveyard, light a candle, say prayers and sometimes take offerings of food and drink for the dead, as they do on All Souls Day. Several informants said they used the anniversary as a reminder to ensure the grave is properly maintained and the area cleaned.

The erection of a gravestone at the anniversary of death or after another interval provides another occasion when family members meet together. A priest blesses the new stone and the family takes candles and food to share as they pray at the graveside. Several informants reported that the high cost of engraving the gravestone delayed their plans.

Contemporary Iban eschatological beliefs

Traditional Iban eschatology could be readily linked to some of the Anglican teaching about the afterlife. However, Anglican teaching changed and developed, with the concept of purgatory being introduced in 1909 and now mostly disused. As a result, Ibans, like Christians in other recently evangelized areas of the world, express considerable variations in their understanding of the meaning of heaven, hell, resurrection, and other beliefs about the afterlife. This section considers contemporary Iban eschatology and whether Iban Christians may offer some new conceptualizations to other parts of the Christian world where traditional religions have encountered western Christianity.

Traditional belief and missionary teaching

The Iban believed that, after death, each person's semengat had a place in Sebayan, conditioned by the manner of death and other factors. The words antu, semengat, orang sebayan and antu sebayan were used to describe those living there. Some claimed that there were stages within sebayan until one reached a state of rest and happiness in mandai jenoh (the quiet place). From here, some Ibans said the antu sebayan might be absorbed by the "mists of the morning" and complete their cycle by being taken up by the growing rice and consumed by the living members of the bilik family.

From the beginning of their work in 1848, Anglican missionaries used the Iban concept of sebayan as a basis for much of their teaching. The word sebayan was sometimes translated as "paradise" and explained in catechisms as "the resting place of the faithful departed who await Christ's Second Coming ... to judge the living and the dead" (Catechism 1964 Questions 28 and 152). Crossland gave a detailed description of the traditional understanding of sebayan in 1866 which shows new ideas entering the Iban's own conceptualization at this early stage of the mission's work. There were particular places for those who died in war or by their own hand, Crossland wrote, and one reason why the Iban tattooed their arms was so that they might be recognized by their friends in sebayan. Once the spirit of the dead person had arrived among its ancestors "everything was prepared for it" Crossland was told. An elderly Iban wanted to take the shirt and trousers given him by Crossland to sebayan so "that all his old friends might know he had been a friend of the Tuan Padre" (Crossland 1866).

Missionary innovations: purgatory, judgement, serga, neraka, resurrection

The place of the orang sebayan in sebayan could not usually be altered by the acts of those still living, and the prospect of an inadequate afterlife, for example after the death of an infant, could therefore be particularly distressing. In such cases the Christian belief in purgatory, introduced by Anglo Catholic missionaries in the early 20th century, appeared to fit well with Iban beliefs about sebayan and also to give some hope of change in the afterlife. Bishop Mounsey then suggested that purgatory was a better translation of the word sebayan. This use of sebayan came into service books and hymnals. Purgatory is now rarely spoken of and the concept is not taught by contemporary Anglican leaders. As a result, the meaning of the word sebayan, which continues to be used in hymns and Anglican service books, has become uncertain and causes confusion. In its place two other words have been introduced and are occasionally used in Anglican teaching and worship. A transliteration "paradis" and the Greek word "hades" are now used to refer to a place of waiting.

Another early missionary, Chambers, described the difficulty he faced in connecting his understanding of Christian doctrine with traditional Iban beliefs. Because Iban eschatology lacked any idea of punishment or retribution, he reported it was difficult to instruct the Iban in the concept of sin. The Iban word used to translate judgement, pechara, referred to the decision made after a court case and had no reference to the life eternal. The following of their own adat and performance of good works could not save the Iban, Chambers wrote. The Iban needed to understand the meaning of the cross and to be justified by faith in Christ (Crossland 1866). The teaching given in the first 100 years of Anglican work also put the teaching about judgement into the context of the second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the world.

There were no Iban words to translate "heaven" or "hell" and the Islamic terms serga and neraka, already found in use by the Sarawak Malays, were adopted at the beginning of Anglican work. Sebayan was then understood in a different sense from serga. Missionaries do report giving instruction about serga and neraka when the words were introduced. Recent Iban language burial services have used just the word serga for the Christian understanding of life in heaven, and not used the word sebayan at all.

An Iban translation of the Church of England catechism was first published in 1921, and republished in 1964. It included clear teaching about hell: "wicked souls will have evil bodies and be lost forever in Hell" (Catechism 1964 Questions 43 and 44). Few of today's Iban Christians or church leaders would use such language about hell today, and indeed there is little teaching given.

Another Christian innovation was teaching about the resurrection. The Anglican Catechism says "righteous souls will receive glorious bodies and live with God forever in heaven." This is also an area of belief about which there has been little recent teaching. Few informants spoke about it, unless specifically asked.

Today most Anglican clergy say that little teaching is given about the afterlife and they doubt that many Iban Christians understand how traditional concepts such as sebayan could have any specifically Christian meanings. Methodist missionaries working with the Iban gave a rather different range of teaching about the afterlife. A former Methodist and Borneo Evangelical Mission teacher said:
 we used the Iban phrase idup meruan meaning 'everlasting life' and
 commended the departed to God's mercy. We sometimes used the word
 neraka or hell to mean a place of punishment for wrongdoing, and
 serga to mean a place of reward. We made no attempt to include Iban
 traditional ideas in our teaching.

As a result, Iban Methodists, like iban Anglicans, hold a wide range of beliefs.

Eschatological beliefs of contemporary I ban Christians

During the last 50 years, as overseas mission workers have withdrawn from Sarawak, there have been significant changes in the ideas held by Iban Christians about the afterlife. They have blended and incorporated Christian and traditional beliefs as they have created their own eschatological framework. Many Christian informants have no clear knowledge of what is Christian or traditional Iban belief. They might hold both together or believe neither. One senior Iban priest suggested many Iban Christians continue to hold traditional beliefs in spite of their Christian teaching. "Official Christian teaching has never been quite the same as what we Iban Christians believe."

The following is a summary of the beliefs of contemporary Iban Anglicans, some of which overlap with the other beliefs.

1. the journey to sebayan, described in the sabak, is difficult, but the Christian journey after death is assured.

2. sebayan is an existence similar to this world.

3. the spirits in sebayan communicate with the living in dreams and other ways.

4. Christians and non-Christians alike go to sebayan when they die; there is no separate heaven or hell.

5. Christians go to paradise or to serga (heaven), which is different from sebayan.

6. sebayan is a place of transition.

7. after death we wait for judgement and for the "Second Coming" of Christ.

8. our souls/spirits live on after death, we trust in God's mercy and hope for eternal life.

1. The journey to sebayan

Christian confidence in life after death was linked by one informant with the Iban custom of journeying, bejalai. "We Ibans jalai from one place to another on earth with confidence. As Christians, our journey after death is assured because Jesus said 'I am the way'." The journey to sebayan was given a contemporary description by one woman church member who said: "we talk about the journey to sebayan as being like a series of bus stops. It's complicated and takes a long time. The last stop is Batang Mandai." Another image was suggested by an informant, the son of an Iban priest: "death is another chapter. When Stephen said 'receive my spirit' before he was killed, it suggests how we should think about the journey after we have died."

2. Existence in Sebayan

A senior Iban priest said:
 the missionaries had to use a word for the place where people went
 after death, so they used the only available word, sebayan. Sebayan
 has a similar meaning to hades in Greek, or sheol in Hebrew. The
 word is used for the spirits living in sebayan and the place
 itself. Nowadays if we use the word sebayan people immediately link
 it to the traditional belief in the other world located on Batang

An Iban Christian who has worked with other researchers in Sarawak, expressed his own continuing belief in sebayan:
 From the sabak chant we know the sebayan of the dead live in the
 land of the dead, in Batang Mandai in Kalimantan Barat. They live a
 similar life as here. If the [antu] sebayan are not given a gawai
 antu then they haven't got a proper permanent building but have to
 live in a temporary shack.

Other Christians think about existence in sebayan in different ways. An Iban priest said "If people ask me about sebayan my answer is to quote John 14 'In my Father's house there are many mansions.'" Another said: "Our traditional belief is that the afterlife is quite similar to this one." A laywoman active in a church congregation said: "We think of sebayan as the garden of heaven above, no one speaks about hell." Other priests said sebayan is "a mixture of landscapes, it's not totally good or bad," or that they have a "negative feeling about it, it is not really a place of peace."

Commentators, particularly outsiders, may be in danger of taking Iban belief too literally. However, the extensive number of Iban proverbs, which have been compared with the parables given by Jesus in the gospels, point to the many different ways Iban understand their traditional beliefs. Thus an Iban researcher seemed to hold a literal understanding when he told me: "no one believes now that the spirits in sebayan become the mists of the morning which help the growth of the padi. As there's no padi being grown, the belief had to change." In contrast, an Iban priest said that the idea that people in sebayan eventually disappear in the mists means your memories of them are fading. It doesn't need to be treated literally, it doesn't mean that they don't continue to exist in sebayan.

There is generally little said about sebayan or the afterlife in Anglican sermons. One priest said: "we don't talk about the afterlife in regular Sunday services, it's only once a year at All Souls time that people hear anything about it." The use of the word sebayan itself in Christian services is decreasing. It occurs in the translation of the Apostles' Creed, but it's not often heard because that creed is not used in the eucharist, the service attended by most people. Priest informants said about the word sebayan "I ignore it, I don't use it," and "I don't like the word."

3. Spirits in sebayan communicate with the living

Ibans expect to communicate with the dead by having dreams. An Iban priest, whose parents were both Iban religious practitioners, talked about people's experience of the sebayan spirits communicating with the living. "If Ibans, Christians or not, have a dream about a dead person, they follow it up, they go to the grave taking with them food, drink and other items. This strengthens their belief in sebayan." Another priest said that Christians still have spiritual contact with the spirits of the dead, using the word semengat to refer to them: "we aren't supposed to believe in dreams, but we do think that through our prayer we are in contact with the semengat of the dead."

Examples have already been given of people hearing sounds as ways in which the spirits of the dead are thought to be communicating. A layman expressed a common anxiety: "when people dream that their dead relatives haven't got proper homes, we can't build a sungkup over the grave for them here in Kuching, because the church won't allow sungkup in their cemeteries." An Iban priest agreed: "we have dreams about dead people, such as that their houses in sebayan are leaking. People think this confirms the belief that the spirits of the dead are living in sebayan and is a reminder that they haven't attended to the grave."

4. Sebayan is for everybody

Christians and non-Christians alike go to sebayan when they die; everyone lives on in sebayan, there is no separate heaven or hell; sebayan is a good place for those who have been good, but bad for sinners. These ideas were generally expressed by lay people who use sebayan rather than serga in speaking about the afterlife.

5. Christians believe in heaven as an alternative to sebayan

A senior Iban priest said: "My longhouse [in the Saribas] has long been influenced by Christianity. We believe that when someone dies they will surely go to heaven, so sebayan is out of the picture for us. Some still believe in sebayan with its other meaning as an antu or a spirit." Another Iban priest said it was common for people to say that we go straight to heaven, rather than that we have to wait for judgement and the end of the world.

Many informants made a very tentative distinction between sebayan and serga. An Iban priest said
 we don't have a very clear situation, it's very difficult when we
 consider the way we use the words sebayan and serga. It's the same
 with the way we use the words 'soul' and 'spirit,' they are not
 clearly defined or differentiated. What we have is what we have
 learnt through church teaching over many years. Now I usually only
 talk about serga, and just use that word, as it is used in the Iban
 version of the Good News Bible.

A senior Iban laywoman said serga is "a word for Christians only, it was introduced by missionaries and put in the Bible. Christians have little idea about it." A senior Iban priest agreed: "the word serga is new to us, but the concept behind it is that it's totally full of good things. In one part of the sabak chant the dead person is believed by the relatives to have actually died. At that point the relatives try to persuade [the deceased] to say good things about them. Maybe that's the stage of serga." Other informants also disliked the use of the word serga. One said: "it is not an Iban word, it comes from the Malay shorga. We prefer to continue using sebayan."

6. Sebayan is a place of transition

An Iban priest referred to a traditional understanding of change in the world of the dead. "After death the semengat or soul goes to mandai, the place of the dead deep under the earth. Mandai jenoh is a place of peace and rest but there is also mandai midang, for those who are not yet ready for mandai jenoh." A senior Iban priest drew on this concept of change and said that as Christians "we used to think of stages, with sebayan as the first stage, before we went up to serga. Some still use the form 'we pray for [someone] while waiting in sebayan."' Another priest in a senior position said, "as an Iban I believe that we pass through sebayan on the way to serga. I think of sebayan as a passing place, a waiting place, until we get to heaven. I put the two together, there's no contradiction."

The concepts of hell, hades, and paradise fit into the understanding that there is a transition after death. In the Iban translation of the Apostles' Creed the phrase "descended into hell" is translated using the word sebayan. An Iban priest said: "nowadays Christians understand sebayan as hades, the first place they go after death. Later, they go to serga." He gave a highly contemporary metaphor:"sebayan could be compared to the transit lounge at an airport. People have to wait until they are called." Another priest said "now when we talk about it we use the phrase 'the world of the dead' rather than the word sebayan." A senior Iban priest said: "The English word 'paradise' is also used because Jesus tells the thief he will be with him there. This has been put into Iban as paradis and is used in prayers and hymns." An Iban layman commented on the dichotomy between this belief in paradise and traditional Iban belief. "I was taught that sebayan or paradise is the place of 'glorified spirits,' but Iban don't have the idea of glorified spirits. We just believe in a soul or semengat, which is sometimes translated as 'spirit,' but it's not the same as a glorified spirit. Dreams show us that our spirits are still connected with us." Another Iban priest referred to the way belief in purgatory had changed:
 in my ordination training we were taught about purgatory, using the
 word sebayan, but today's students are not taught about it. Most
 clergy would say there is no purgatory, but we need to hear what
 the bishop thinks about it. We need to make a decision about how we
 teach about it in the diocese.

7. After death we wait for judgement and for the "Second Coming" of Christ

An Iban priest said: "the Iban did not believe in a judgement day, but that their semengat lived in sebayan forever. If people have died in special circumstances their semengat live in different places in sebayan." However when an Iban layman quoted an Iban Proverb: "we don't speak evil because God is listening" he acknowledged one of the ways that the universal ideas of good and evil are part of Iban consciousness.

Only one out of the many Anglican clergy interviewed mentioned that the Christian creeds refer to judgement. He said also that the ideas of judgement, the second coming, and the new creation are largely ignored.
 Thinking about judgement and the second coming on a personal level
 I would rather accept a realized eschatology. My understanding is
 that the Old Testament promised Jesus would come, so eternal life
 begins here and now. Is there really a need for us to have a Second
 Coming and judgement day?

The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body is also invariably ignored, and was only acknowledged when interviewees were prompted.

8. Our souls or spirits live on after death

The essence of this idea, and the understanding of "soul" and "spirit," is discussed in the following section.

"Soul" and "Spirit": Translations and Confusion

Many informants quoted the text "in my Father's house there are many mansions" as they acknowledged the diversity of beliefs held by Christians about the afterlife. This section examines some of the confusion and misunderstanding caused by the different Iban translations of the English words "soul" and "spirit," and the way in which the words have been used by Anglicans. The responses of Iban Christians as they considered the afterlife, and which focused on the soul or spirit living on after death, are described here. Most of these informants added that it was sufficient to trust in God's mercy and the hope of eternal life, and did not elaborate their beliefs.

The early missionaries and later indigenous church leaders have given little explanation about the meanings of "soul" and "spirit." As a result, questions about what makes up the human mind, consciousness or self-awareness, how this might relate to "soul" and be different from "spirit," and how they connect to the afterlife are unanswered. There is considerable misunderstanding and confusion in the minds of Iban Christians as they hear the words used in Iban language prayer books, biblical texts, and hymn books.

New Testament Greek has two words, psyche and pneuma, which are usually translated as "soul" and "spirit" respectively. Both "soul" and "spirit are translated in the Iban Anglican Prayer Book by the Iban word "semengat." Recent Iban language burial services use "semengat" to translate "soul." "Spirit" has also been translated as "ati," commonly used figuratively for inner feelings, or by "roh, "a word derived from Hebrew and Arabic. An example of how the an Iban translation makes this differentiation is in the Magnificat, Mary's song, in which Mary says her soul, semengat, "magnifies the Lord," and her spirit, ati, "rejoices in God [her] saviour."

The majority of informants gave a clear explanation of the way in which semengat was traditionally understood and suggested this was the way they and most Christians still understood the word when they heard it used in Christian contexts. Their explanations assumed the semengat goes to sebayan: "the semengat separates from the body on death and you are really dead," "when the semengat leaves the earthly body the semengat goes to sebayan. It lives its own existence in sebayan." Some added that the semengat can temporarily leave a person's body when he is ill, and that the semengat might still be encountered after death. "We know the semengat is alive in sebayan because when a person has died we still dream of meeting them, or we hear unusual noises which they make," "the semengat returns to say goodbye to the relatives and can move around." Two informants from the Saribas, continuing to expect that a Gawai Antu might be held, said that until then "the semengat doesn't settle in sebayan, it moves around, it may take several years, we're not sure where the semengat is during this time."

This traditional understanding of semengat was set alongside the use of roh by one layman who said that when he heard the Prayer Book read, and when "a priest says our semengat has gone to heaven, we think no, in our Iban tradition the semengat is in sebayan. For Christians, it's the roh that goes to serga." The way in which this informant distinguished between semengat and roh suggests a more consistent way in which the two words can be understood and used. However, other informants said that they gave a Christian meaning to semengat. Their understanding was that semengat "refers to the same thing as the Christian soul," "it means the soul in heaven."

Belief in antu, or ghosts, remains widespread among the Iban, both non-Christian and Christian, and the way semengat is used needs to be distinguished from the way people use the word antu. A layman said "we use antu with so many meanings. If we don't understand something we say it must be the antu; they can be good or bad. The antu are different from the soul within us. We wouldn't use the word antu to express Christian ideas." However, an Iban priest did not distinguish separate meanings for antu and sebayan. He said " as soon as we die we become an antu or ghost."

Belief in the Holy Spirit, usually translated as Roh Alkudus, was clearly differentiated by informants from belief about antu. However the way the words roh and semengat are used has led to considerable confusion, particularly as there is little evidence that in the teaching about soul or spirit given by missionaries or later church leaders they have been clearly distinguished. An Iban layman, familiar with the English New Testament, suggested that, as the words "I commend my spirit" were spoken by Jesus when he died, it is the spirit that lives on after death. An Iban priest explained this in a similar way when he said: "my physical body is left behind in this world, but there is another me, a roh, a spirit, within us which will never die." A senior Iban priest agreed:
 the use of roh and semengat is very confusing. I think the word roh
 is mainly used by Second Division [Saribas] Ibans, who were more
 influenced by the missionaries' teaching. For me it is
 interchangeable with sebayan. I tell people that there is another
 person, another me, which is not like my physical body, but a roh.
 My physical body is left behind in this world, but the roh will go
 on. I believe if we take care of our physical bodies, and based on
 the kind of life we lead, the roh within us will never die. If I
 treat my body with good food and it is healthy, then I must have a
 healthy roh.

A further word, malikat, has been introduced to refer to spiritual beings, in this case translating the English word "angel." An Iban priest said "when we talk about such spiritual beings we talk about something beyond the physical. People see malikat in their dreams or visions. For the Iban we always understand them as messengers." In this case the English word "angel," translating the Greek word which had the original meaning of "messenger," was particularly apt. One more word, used by the Iban to translate the English word "spirit" is yang. One example of its use was given by a layman who said yang was a traditional Iban word describing something like the word roh introduced by the missionaries.

However, it is sebayan and roh which are mainly used. As Iban Christians consider how these words about an afterlife existence are used, and distinguish between them to develop their own clearer eschatology, this in turn may assist Christians in other situations, where traditional, tribal and western Christian beliefs have interacted, to formulate their own understanding of eternal things.


Sandin's 1976 conclusion to Tusun Pendiau Iban suggested the need to include the essential role of the spiritual in the Iban way of life as it faced major changes.

What are the things that matter most for the people in this modern society? ... A society that is moving forward without spiritual fulfilment is paving the way for self destruction and extinction (Sandin 1976).

This account has shown that the Iban have retained a sense of the spiritual as permeating the whole of their life. Their traditional rituals and beliefs have blended with those of Christianity. The 2010 census, identifying 76% of Sarawak's Iban as following Christianity, affirms how Iban modernity has embraced the ideas that have come both through missionary education and through an indigenous church leadership.


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Internet Sources

Peter Varney

Research Associate

School of International Development

University of East Anglia, UK

(1) Most interviews were recorded, with the subject's permission, along with notes made, in pocket notebooks. Names have been kept on a computer spreadsheet, kept securely on a data stick. As an Anglican priest, the writer had the privilege of receiving generous responses of time from all who were approached, and acknowledges their contribution. Cross-checking information confirms the accuracy of responses.
Occupation Formal Interviewees: Informal Interviewees:

Student 1 1
Self-employed 2 5
Senior Government 3 4
Bank 1
Law 1
University 2
Police 2
Office work 3 2
Clergy 8 5
Church employees 2
Retired 5 5
Total 25 27

Male 20 20
Female 5 7

Iban 25 22
Other 5

(2) The 2000 Census gave a percentage of 42.6% for Christians, so there is little apparent change in the religious composition of Sarawak, although the number and proportion of Iban Christians has increased.

(3) This could be translated as: 'Home of the Ruler of the Christian Clergy [and their adherents]'.

(4) Interview 12 March 2011.

(5) The smallest note, MRI, is worth approx GBP 0.20 pence in 2012, and coins are worth less.

(6) A shed believed to be for the temporary use of the spirit of the deceased.

(7) This is also referred to as serara' bangkit by Richards (1981).

(8) Interviews in Kuching, June-July 2010.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Varney, Peter
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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