Asia-Pacific

Mourning Mount Merapi's 'spiritual keeper'

The funeral of Maridjan, at a graveyard near Mount Merapi - 28 October 2010
A large crowd of people attended the funeral of Maridjan, Merapi's spiritual keeper

Just off the sharply inclined road, snaking its way towards Mount Merapi, there is a clearing in the forest.

The land here has been terraced to accommodate the neat rows of headstones.

And for several hours on Thursday morning, almost every available space in between was filled with people.

People from different villages, different walks of life, all gathered at this cemetery to pay their respects to the most famous victim of Merapi's latest eruption.

File photo of Mbah Maridjan, Mount Merapi's spiritual gate keeper - 17 May 2006.
Maridjan was appointed by a sultan to manage the volcano's hidden spirits

Mbah Maridjan was "the gate keeper", charged by appointment to the Sultan of Yogyakarta with managing the volcano's hidden spirits.

Javanese culture is full of mysticism and Maridjan took his job seriously. Too seriously perhaps.

When officials came to tell him it was time to leave the volcano's lower slopes and move to safety, he refused.

His place, he said, was at home, trying to pacify the spirits' brewing anger.

When the burning clouds of ash descended, he, and many of those who had come to reason with him were killed.

Now he was among five victims laid to rest in the shadow of the mountain that had taken their lives.

Fresh mounds of earth, covered in flower petals, marked the new graves.

Some young men climbed the branches of trees to get a better look, as a chorus of voices recited Muslim prayers for the dead: a rhythmic chant rising up the mountainside.

'It's raining ash'

Given the volatility of the land on which they live, Indonesians are remarkably good-humoured and phlegmatic when disaster strikes. And disaster is an uncomfortably regular visitor here.

Kapun is typical. I met her sitting in a school classroom, surrounded by families evacuated from the danger zone.

A large lady, with a wide smile, Kapun lives about 5km from Merapi's peak.

Shortly before 1800 on Tuesday she heard a warning siren.

"I panicked at first, then just grabbed my children and husband and jumped in the car," she said.

"People were running and screaming 'it's raining ash'."

The school is now temporary home to several hundred people. Children ran around the sports hall, seemingly oblivious to the danger that lowers menacingly on the horizon.

Eerie sheen

Merapi is surrounded by beautiful verdant green countryside. At least it is usually.

When the volcano started spewing hot clouds, buildings, cars, trees and paddy fields were covered in a layer of fine dusty ash, lending everything an eerie grey sheen.

But on Wednesday, nature cleaned up its own mess. A heavy rainstorm washed away much of the ash in torrents of dirty water.

But as the burials took place, the rain held off and for a while it seemed even Merapi respected a brief period of mourning.

The volcano remained relatively quiet as the victims were laid to rest.

But the respite was short lived. By late Thursday afternoon, Merapi was erupting again and thousands of evacuees were preparing for another night away from home.

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