Learning About Indonesian Ghost Culture After My Aunt's Death
After my aunt Gita died, her spirit came to watch over my family. I learned how ghosts can help comfort the grieving.
Photo courtesy of Cady Siregar
When my aunt Gita died unexpectedly a year ago in Jakarta, Maroon 5—her favorite band—suddenly started playing everywhere. In the weeks following her death, the Californian pop-rock five-piece was ubiquitous. Buskers performed acoustic renditions of "She Will Be Loved" as we passed; Songs About Jane was the only selection of songs available at karaoke; and the radio station we randomly chose played both "Misery" and "Payphone."
For my Indonesian family, this wasn’t coincidental. Gita's spirit was causing Maroon 5 to play everywhere we went.
In Indonesia, where my family is from, the presence of spirits—called ruh—is deeply rooted, although beliefs vary by region. In rural Java, for example, Hindu spirits, the souls of Muslim prophets, and those of local villagers all co-exist peaceably, side-by-side. Belief in ghosts and supernatural beings in Indonesia, specifically associated with Malay Muslim populations, is thought to take its roots from pre-Islamic belief systems.
In my family, we speak about spirits casually, as if discussing a new recipe. Tales of ghostly encounters pass down generations until they are embedded into our daily life.
My mom Antin, often experiences sleep paralysis. She believe it's due to her late grandmother visiting her. “I’ll feel this great weight pushing down on me,” she says. “Usually in the middle of the night. There’s nothing ever physically there, but it makes for hard breathing. It feels like someone sitting on your ribcage. I’m never able to see her, but I know it’s Oma [grandma.]”
“She never feels malevolent,” my mom continues. “She doesn’t do anything harmful—except for the pressure on my chest. But it’s as if she’s there to check up on me.”
It was around the time following my aunt's death that my grandparents’ driver Iwan complained of a nagging feeling that he was being watched by some metaphysical presence.
“Please, Ibu Antin,” Iwan asked my mother. “The lights keep flickering on and off, and the bedroom door keeps swinging open and shut. It’s not the breeze. There’s a spirit playing tricks on me.”
Later, my mom remembered how her Oma used to love practical jokes. The next night, she quietly asked Oma if she could please stop messing with Iwan. The following morning, the lights stopped flickering.
In my experience, Indonesian spirits are mostly benign, protective presences—the spirits of loved ones, left behind to guide the living. They do not take a corporeal form, but come to you as an innate feeling of being joined by an otherworldly aura. My mother, grandparents, and cousins have always been receptive to ruh.
“A strong belief in mysticism comes from reading and believing Qur’anic passages emphasizing the existence of unseen worlds,” says Dr. Muhamad Ali, a religious studies professor at the University of California, Riverside, specializing in Islam. “When God creates human beings, God gives them His ruh. It is the ruh that lasts while the physical body dissolves when a human dies. Ruh is the spirit that continues to exist, but far beyond human understanding.”
Islam first spread throughout Indonesia between the ninth and 13th century. It's now the largest Muslim-majority country in the world (with Islam making up 87.2 percent of the general population.) “The belief in ruh is widespread across Muslim societies, coinciding with the large population of Muslims in each country,” Dr. Ali tells me. Ruh, he explains, is not to be confused with jinn—commonly characterized as ghosts or spectres. “Ruh is the spirit, while jinn is its physical manifestation. All living beings have ruh.”
My great-grandparents would offer food for jinn so they would be subservient for generations to come. “One time, your great-grandfather’s nanny decided to have a sip of the coffee that was laid out for the jinn,” my mother says matter-of-factly. “So the jinn chased him until he had to hide under the bed and refused to leave. Then he went insane.”
But while beliefs in ruh and jinns is widespread across Muslim-majority nations, cultural traditions specific to each country influence the way the population treats ghosts.
“Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines also believe in ruh. But the difference between their understanding of it and Indonesia's lies in contrasting practices and assimilation of local spirits, demons, magics, totems, and so on. Ideas of jinn spread to Indonesia, but were assimilated with existing local beliefs about spirits, such as Hindu gods and goddesses,” says Dr. Ali. “This is why the belief has become so ingrained in Indonesia.”
Some Indonesians, be it in rural areas or large metropoles, may even seek help from religious preachers to bless their practices and families, according to Dr. Ali.
“The ability to sense ruh is mainly through dreams, but also emotions,” says Nur Arif of Nahdatul Ulama, an Indonesian Islamic association. “We respect spirits as we believe they are sacred, and the connecting force between mortals and God. Once we die, the soul returns to God, and the physical body back to the soil.”
Believing in ruh brought comfort to my family in the aftermath of my aunt’s death. After she died, my 23-year-old cousin Jade told me she felt like she was being tickled in her sleep. “It’s just this weird poking feeling at the side of my stomach at night," she said. "I know it’s her.” Jade’s brothers: 19-year-old Ryan, and 21-year-old Geo, felt it too. “That must be Mom,” they both told me.
After Gita's death, my mom found a long-lost hair clip. “Thanks for helping me find it, sis,” she whispered. My grandmother still smelled my aunt’s scent at odd places throughout the house. It had to be Gita, she knew.
I missed my aunt’s funeral: In Islam, we believe a corpse has to be buried within 24 hours of death to ensure immediate closure for the bereaved. I wasn’t able to travel the nearly 12,000 km from London to Jakarta in time. Not being able to attend my aunt’s funeral made it difficult to accept the reality of her death. When I visited her grave for the first time, my brain rejected it. It was a jarring, upsetting experience.
Unlike the rest of my family, who can easily sense my aunt, Gita's ruh has not always been obvious to me. I’ve never been tickled by her, nor does she visit me in my dreams. I regret this, because I miss her—my only aunt, my mother’s only sibling, who was such a huge part of my life.
Gita was the closest I had to a parent after my own single mother. Her daughter Jade is only four months older than me, and we've been inseparable since childhood. We both watched our mothers struggle with heartbreak, divorce, and single parenthood. Growing up, Gita, Jade, Ryan, Geo, and my grandparents were my family—my only family.
I believe in ruh: It’s what I’ve grown up with. But since Gita fails to make contact with me, my thoughts turn cynical. Do my relatives use a belief in ruh as a way to deal with her death? Is their faith in spirits a sign they are incapable of moving on?
I ask Dr. Risatianti Kolopaking, a psychology professor at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, about how a belief in ruh may affect how we mourn the dead. She tells me that, contrary to what I initially thought, a strong belief in ruh belongs not in the denial stages of grief, but in the healthier, later stages of acceptance.
“Choosing, however consciously, to communicate with a spirit of the deceased is actually healthy coping behavior,” she explains, referring me to research showing that religious coping techniques can help mitigate symptoms of depression. Other studies have suggested that Islamic teachings can help individual Muslims cope with tragic events in their lives. “It means they have accepted the person’s physical form has passed, prompting them to resort to a spiritual connection. Speaking to spirits is not denial—it is a soothing way to come to terms.”
“In order to be receptive to spirits, one must be able to accept that the physical manifestation of the person has gone," Dr. Risa tells me. "This is where you have work to do. You are still in the denial stage, while your family are in acceptance.”
And it’s not even as if ruh stay in our physical realm forever: ruh only stay with us for a short while in the immediate aftermath of a death. “We believe the ruh stay with us for 40 days after death,” says Pak Nur, a spiritual leader at Nahdlatul Ulama, a school in Indonesia that practices religious studies. “After that, the ruh goes elsewhere, to a place we call barzakh—like a temporary waiting realm.”
My mother tells me how Gita would visit her in her dreams constantly in the months immediately after her death. She’d often wake up in tears. Now, though, a year on, she says the visits come less often. “The last few times I saw her she came to me with this feeling of peace,” she says.
“A feeling of serenity. She’s at ease. I feel better knowing that.”