8 Indonesians dug COVID-19 victims’ graves in Cerme, Gresik


Many netizens worldwide were shooketh this week when photos of Indonesians forced to dig graves hit international media, especially since they were being punished for not wearing masks in public, and the graves were intended for COVID-19 victims.

Given the high infection and death rates of COVID-19 in the country – currently at 9,100 deaths or 4% of 228,993 recorded cases – it’d be easy to believe this grave-digging punishment seems a little harsh. However, what many reports left out were that only 8 Indonesians were punished in this manner, they weren’t exposed to the virus, and this only occured in a subdistrict of Gresik Regency, East Java called Cerme.


They were being punished for not wearing masks by local subdistrict authorities


gravediggers in gresik
Image credit: Kompas

This unconventional grave-digging punishment stems from the fact that regional authorities in Indonesia are allowed to dole out appropriate penalties for those who don’t follow COVID-19 health rules, such as how authorities in Tangerang have made maskless residents perform push-ups in public while wearing bright orange vests.

location of cerme, gresik, east java
Cerme is located in Gresik, East Java
Image adapted from Google Maps

By no means was this punishment nationwide or even subdistrict-wide. It so happened that these 8 male rulebreakers were roped into grave-digging at the public cemetery of Ngabetan Village, Cerme subdistrict because there were only three gravediggers available on site.

This counts as community service under Regent Law No. 22/2020, that states that health protocol rulebreakers will be fined or given community service orders.

Cerme’s district head Suyono, who goes by one name, explained that the 8 rulebreakers dug the graves in two-person teams, one digging the soil and the other placing planks in the hole for the corpses to rest against. According to Joglosemarnews, after the digging was complete, the rulebreakers were asked to pray at the cemetery to deter them from not wearing masks again in future.

Similarly, other residents who were caught without masks have also been given the choice to clean graves in Cerme cemeteries, or pay a fine of Rp. 150,000 (~USD10.07). Most violators, in fact, picked the grave-cleaning punishment according to Suarajatim.id, which is understandable as this fine is not a small sum to many.


The actual burial of COVID-19 victims was done by officials in full PPE


burial in a graveyard by officials in ppe
Officials burying a coffin in a Jakarta graveyard in full PPE in April 2020. Image for illustration purposes only.
Image credit: Liputan6 

Suyono explained to Jakarta Post that the rulebreakers who dug the graves were not actually present during the COVID-19 victims’ subsequent burials.

So while their grave-digging punishment was certainly tiring and perhaps frightening enough to deter them from reoffending, it wasn’t dangerous to their health.

However, it certainly brings back memories of the equally harmless but scary pocong puppet parade in Cikupa that local officials conducted to remind everyone to follow social distancing rules.


Gresik authorities have been enforcing COVID-19 health protocols in various ways


gresik police conducting night patrol at restaurant during pandemic
Police visiting a restaurant where social distancing barriers have been placed
Image credit:
Tribratanews Gresik

Gresik’s local authorities have been kept busy dispersing public gatherings and advising people to mask up in public. One way they do this is by conducting night patrols at places where some tend to forget mask-wearing and social distancing protocols – such as at restaurants and also by the side of busy roads.

gresik police conducting night patrol on roadside during pandemic
Gresik police conducting traffic patrols at night to check for health protocol violators
Image credit:
Tribratanews Gresik

At the same time, they’re on the lookout for non-mask-related crimes such as petty theft and shoplifting that continue to trouble residents in the region.

gresik driver made to do pushups for not wearing mask
Image credit: Tribatanews Gresik

Gresik drivers spotted leaving the house without a mask are sometimes subject to relatively mild but also embarrassing punishments, such as roadside push-ups.


Let’s keep wearing face masks in public, washing our hands, and practicing physical distancing


For the sake of everyone’s health and well-being, let’s keep practicing what we now know as Indonesia’s three guidelines of wearing face masks in public, washing our hands, and physical distancing.

We’ll need to look out for each other to gradually get through the pandemic, and everybody has a part to play in helping Indonesia recover.

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Cover image adapted from Josue Ladoo Pelegrin and Kompas

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