The death custom of the Ibans covers a variety of fixed procedures and abcentisms. They believe that if not properly implemented then misfortune and calamaties will prevail. The deceased spirit will also not be at peace.


When a death occurs, the deceased family members and relatives shed tears for at least 10 minutes. Two rice pounders are placed horizontally at the end of the long house to obstruct the deceased spirit to enter the house and bring along with it live spirits to the after world that will result in more deaths in the house.

The corpse is cleansed with soap water made from the pounded skin of the langgir fruit. Three dots of turmeric are marked on the forehead. The hair is oiled and combed after the corpse is dressed up to the best according to the teachings of the God Pun-tang Raga. Then the corpse is laid down on a rattan mat in the deceased room.

The Pua Kumbu material is hung in the living room to be erected as a sapat (an enclave) with a dimension of nine feet square and about five feet from the floor. If the sapat fails to be vertically erected then the audience there may easily fall ill. Then the corpse is brought out of the bedroom and placed inside the sapat. When the corpse just exited the door that separates the deceased room with the living room, the eldest woman in the deceased family sprinkles rice on the corpse and recites short prayers believed to enable the deceased to heaven without obstructions.

After the corpse is properly laid down on the sapat the deceased women family members lead other family members in shedding tears for a while. Biaya (the deceased possessions) is put inside an empty box whereby the box is placed near the corpse head. Baiya pandang (pieces of cloths) are hung above the corpse. Small fires are lighted next to the corpse feet and the fire must not be extinguished until the burial ceremony ends. The corpse is left for about two days or longer waiting for the arrival of the deceased relatives.

The corpse must not be stepped on or stepped over by cats or dogs as it is believed that such action cause the deceased spirit to be unpeaceful and will always chase after living persons. Therefore, the corpse is always guarded by elderly women until the corpse is buried.

The head of the house discusses with the audience in the living room about the invitation to other villages to attend the burial ceremony so as to to make it easier for the deceased family in the preparations. A RM5.00 contribution is to help buy foodstuff. Two men are chosen to send the invitation, one to the upstream and the other downstream. If the deceased long house doesnt have a tukang sabak (person to sing death songs) then one such person is to be invited from another long house.

Guests arrive with contributions like glutinous rice, money or chickens. At 6 p.m. the tukang sabak starts singing slowly and melancholy. He cites the journey of the deceased spirit from this world to the hereafter. He sits on a chair near the corpse head with part of his face covered with a handkerchief. He recites mantras continously till dawn, stopping only to eat and drink. His payment is a chicken, and in the form of utensils like a jar, plates, as well as a machete or iron sheets to strengthen his spirit and as shields from unwanted incidents during his lifetime.

Guests are served with a heavy meal at 8 p.m., a lighter one like coffee and bread at 10 p.m., and a late night meal at 2 a.m. The honoured guests, like the village head and the house head, sit in a line with the deceased family members on the above floor of the living room, while other family members sit on both sides of the living room of the deceased room. Representative of the deceased family delivers a speech informing the audience the cause of death and that mourning period is for three months. Finally, he thanks those who help the deceased family in the burial ceremony.

Among the abcentisms during mourning is that it is forbidden to shout when passing by the long house compound of the deceased. Neither does an event be held, but if unavoidable then a RM2.00 fine is imposed as a safeguard.

Family members and guests are only free to discuss about other topics after the late night meal is over.


The coffin is brought to the cemetery before dawn, about 5.30 a.m. A man leads the way with a torch to light the pathway. Upon reaching the cemetery a chicken is slaughtered and its blood smeared on the ground where it is going to be the burial place. A little bit of rice is sprinkled around the grave. The coffin is lowered into the grave together with the deceased personal possessions, believed to be used by him in the other world.

The corpse head is placed towards the upstream. If the dead were a faith healer then his head was to be placed towards downstream. The Ibans believe that the faith healer spirit rests forever on the highest level of the sacred Rabong Mountain, the place where the first Iban faith healer, Iban Menjaya Manang Raja, was immortalized. He was the younger sibling of Sengalang Burong, the God of War.

After the burial ends a mark is planted on the grave. Then the burial members satisfy their needs with foods cooked earlier in the morning along the river.


All the elderly long house residents visit the deceased room to witness an elderly woman eating the sacrifice meal called asi pana. Normally, it is three bowls of black rice. Each bowl signifies each day the long house residents do not work outside the long house. If the residents agree not to work for three days of mourning then the person who leads the mourning ceremony eats a bowl of the asi pana every morning.

During the three days mourning the deceased room is left in the dark, with the purpose that the dark world life will bring brightness to the deceased. After the three-day mourning ends the windows of the deceased room are smeared with chicken blood before they are officially opened by the elderly woman. After the last asi pana rice is consumed the deceased valuables are placed inside a lengguai (box) tied with rattan and kept in the room during the mourning period. This box must be safeguarded from being disturbed or reached by children or stepped on.

If the three-day mourning coincides with the harvest season, the farmers can pay sigi jabir or pana benda (compensation) of RM1.00 to the deceased family to enable the farmers to work in the paddy fields. Those not involved or tied with the mourning abcentisms can help the farmers in harvesting.

At dusk during the three-day mourning the deceased family light up a fire near the side of the long house. This is to avoid the deceased spirit from wandering or roaming around in search of food prepared by humans.


A day before this ceremony begins, after the three months mourning is over, the deceased family members convey their intention to end the three months mourning by holding the ngetas ulit ceremony, to the long house residents.

Closed relatives of the deceased arrive early in the morning the next day and congregate in the deceased family room. Then a man in Iban warrior attire makes three screams upon reaching the deceased house. His scream is reciprocated by gong beating by a man at the veranda of the deceased family room. A chicken is then given to the warrior whereby he swings it on the lengguai (box) while uttering mantras to bless the audience so that they live peacefully after the ulit is taken off.

The warrior performs the ngetas ulit ceremony whereby he cuts the rattan that ties the box, opens it and takes out the contents. Then the deceased family members request the warrior to cut a bit of their hair with his knife. The payment to take off the ulit is mostly sharp objects. Foods are served after this ceremony ends.


This final ceremony is held about one or two months after the ngetas ulit ceremony, and performed by a faith healer that has power and is able to communicate directly with the unknown world. This ceremony is to separate the living world with that of the death world and expedite the separation process of the deceased spirit and his living family. If there were a family member that still think of the deceased then this member might fall ill that may cause death.

It is believed that if the deceased spirit is not separated then the spirit will continue to be around and will disturb. The spirit too will ensure that the family members will waste food as the wasted food will be the deceased food. This will result in the family losing on wealth.

This ceremony ends when the deceased copper vase is opened and its handle cut by the faith healer. If this is not performed then the deceased family members will continue to be disturbed by the deceased spirit and they will be befallen with unwanted debacles.

Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Negara, Sarawak

Tingkat 5, Bangunan Sultan Iskandar,
Jalan Simpang Tiga, 93300 Kuching, Sarawak.
Tel : 082-422006 / 082-423106
Fax : 082-244394