Indonesian Volcano's Spiritual Caretaker Dies

NOTE: An editor's note follows this story.

For 33 years, Maridjan spoke to Mount Merapi, believing he could appease its unpredictable spirits by offering of rice, clothes and chickens to the volcano.

Many villagers took his word -- not that of government officials or seismologists -- as the last on when it would erupt. And the 83-year-old did appear to predict the volcano's latest eruption -- which killed 33 people this week -- but did not heed the warning himself.

As Merapi began spewing 1,800 degree Fahrenheit (1,000 Celsius) gases and thousands of villagers streamed down the mountain's slopes, Maridjan refused to budge, and more than a dozen people stayed, and perished, with him.

His rigid body was found Wednesday, prostrate on the ground in the typical Islamic prayer position and caked in heavy white soot.

On Thursday, high-profile politicians, soap opera stars, singers and hundreds of family and followers flocked to his funeral on the slopes of the mountain that had been entrusted to his care by a late king. Televisions crews and reporters jostled for position with family and friends, who reached their hands through the crowds for a chance to touch the coffin as it was carried to the grave.

Mourners kneeled by the open grave to pray as his body was lowered into the ground. They then covered the body with soil and piled cut orchids on the mound.

"I never thought he was going to leave us in such a way," said Prabukusumo, the brother of the sultan in the nearby court city of Yogyakarta who is now tasked with choosing his successor. "He's lived through so many, much bigger eruptions. I'm still in shock."

But a friend said Maridjan seemed to be expecting his death.

When asked by his close friend, Wansafyudin, days before the eruption if it might not be better to leave, he refused, according to the English-language Jakarta Globe newspaper.

"My time to die in this place has almost come," he reportedly said.

Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, is located on the so-called "Ring of Fire," a series of fault lines that are prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

Merapi is one of the world's most active mountains.

When he was 50, Maridjan inherited the position of "key holder" of the mountain from his father, receiving the official appointment from the sultan of Yogyakarta.

The mystical practice persists in Indonesia, even though most of the country's 237 million people are Muslims. Islam is a relatively new arrival to the country and, in many areas, coexists with older traditions that have their roots in animist, Hindu or Buddhist belief.

Maridjan was believed by many to have the ability to speak directly to the mountain and led ceremonies every year to hold back its lava flows by throwing rice, clothes and chickens into its dome.

Many villagers saw him as a hero, believing him over government officials and seismologists when it came to determining Merapi's danger levels. But he was a constant source of frustration for those tasked with overseeing evacuations.

Every time he refused to head down the mountain, he set a bad example for others, putting their lives at risk, they said.
Among the 14 other people found dead in and around his home, halfway up the mountain, was an Indonesian Red Cross volunteer who was trying to persuade him to leave.

"People should follow calls from district heads, village chiefs and other officials," said former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who now heads the aid agency. "Merapi disasters threaten the safety of villagers as well as volunteers who come to save them."

But far from serving as a cautionary tale, Maridjan's death and Merapi's continuing eruption has made many villagers only yearn for his quick replacement.

"I'm more afraid than ever," said Prapto Wiyono, a 60-year-old farmer from the village of Pangukrejo, who was among thousands of people crammed in an emergency shelters. "Who's going to tell us now what's going on with Merapi?"

NOTE: In a story Oct. 28 about the death of a man who was believed to have the ability to communicate with the spirits of a volcano, The Associated Press erroneously said offerings of rice and chickens were thrown into the crater. Ceremonies were held one mile (two kilometers) away. This story has been updated to reflect the correction.