Cemetery Rituals Reveal an Unusual Slice of Yogyakarta Tradition

By webadmin on 12:26 pm Jun 20, 2012
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Ariargo Wiguno Putra & Fransisca Amelia

“ Ngapunten, badhe ngagem dupa napa mboten?” Purwanto said as he welcomed us at the second gate of Hasta Renggo cemetery in Yogyakarta.

The question is usually uttered by the abdi dalem hastana (royal cemetery servant) when welcoming guests to the burial compound. The question, which means “Pardon me, would you like to use the incense?” might make some visitors confused, as incense is not a commonly brought to a cemetery. In Indonesia, especially on Java, pilgrims usually bring flowers, water, or a prayer book.

Yet for those who are familiar with the customs at this sacred cemetery, the question would not be such a surprise.

The Javanese have a wide range of cultural rituals, which are generally associated with either birth or death. One important part of these rituals is the sending of prayers for the spirits of their ancestors.

In Yogyakarta’s Kota Gede, well-known for its silver industry and once the capital of the Islamic Mataram Kingdom, there are two sacred cemeteries of royal families. One of them is Hasta Renggo, a cemetery compound allocated for the seventh descendants of Sultan Hamengkubuwono VII.

When we came, the place looked clean and well-preserved, almost garden-like, unlike many unruly public cemeteries that often incite ghost stories. Also buried here are the founders of Gadjah Mada University, who were related to the Sultanate of Yogyakarta.

Inside the compound, one can see a tomb covered with a curtain. It contains the body of the intended candidate for the eighth sultan. The throne went to his younger brother when the candidate was allegedly ill.

The Sultanate of Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat has assigned two abdi dalem to take care of Hasta Renggo. Abdi dalem dedicate their lives to the court. At the cemetery, clad in the complete male Javanese outfit of sarjan (top), jarik (batik cloth covering legs), and blangkon (cap), they warmly serve visitors every day. Abdi dalem assigned to tend sacred cemeteries get the additional title of hastana in front of their names. Purwanto’s moniker, then, has become Hastana Purwanto.

An abdi dalem hastana’s duty, besides being a cemetery caretaker, is to accompany guests who wish to pray for the spirits of their families or ancestors buried in this place. Often they will lead the prayers while burning some incense in a small, clay pot. The burning of incense has a philosophy of its own. The smoke that moves up to the sky, added with positive prayers, is believed to later lead the spirits to the highest place in heaven.

Hasta Renggo has of late become a cultural tourism spot, so everyone is welcome. Just bear in mind that removing footwear is a must inside this complex. You may simply want to look around, but guests will be offered a chance to pray anyway. An abdi dalem hastana may direct the guests to the intended tomb, set up the mat, and then leave them to pray on their own. He may also lead the prayers himself.

After praying, guests usually spread flower petals on the tombstone. According to the Javanese belief system of Kejawen, which is influenced by Islamic teaching, the fresh flower petals are symbolic of the living’s plead for forgiveness to the Almighty God for evil deeds the dead committed during their lifetimes.

“One may pray for the souls to get into heaven,” Purwanto said. “Or they could wish for blessings, so that as the descendants [of the ones buried here], their hopes could become a reality. It may be a hope to be a policeman, to have a good education, to easily win someone’s heart, anything.”

Pilgrims will finally be directed to wash their feet. Bringing home a grain of cemetery soil, even if it is only stuck to your feet, is inappropriate. The procession ends with a handshake with the abdi dalem hastana.