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Travel

The Kids Who Live and Work in Indonesian Graveyards

Riski is seven years old and spends nearly all his time in Pondok Kelapa Public Cemetery, where he's a sort of funeral director, gravedigger, and night watchman.
November 13, 2014, 5:00am

Photos by Lody Andrian

Over the last few years, wealthy Indonesians have started to decorate their graves in a lavish style that resembles Southern California's midcentury trend of "memorial parks," only more extreme. In Jakarta, San Diego Hills M​emorial Park, which opened in 2007, resembles a theme park for the wealthy and dead—it boasts a restaurant, swimming pool, campground, and paddle boats you can take out on "Lake Los Angeles."

Another Jakarta burial ground,  Pondok Kelapa Public Cemetery, was in the local news recently because a body was dumped there after a gruesome murder, for which the killer was sentenced last month. The place is watched over by a band of kids as young as two who work and even live there. The flip side of rich Indonesians tricking out their cemeteries is poor Indonesians ​living in them—which is perhaps understandable when you consider how economic growth in the country has given rise to ​skyrocketing income inequality.

One of the tiny caretakers at Pondok Kelapa is Riski, who doesn't know his age but looks about seven. He spends his days burying the dead and keeping the graves clean.

When my photographer and I found him, he was with a friend named Putra, playing with a bag of lizards. Riski was wearing a pair of faux Crocs and a T-shirt that said "Slank Mo Drugs." When we asked the workers in the funeral shops in the area about him, they said he and his friend were the youngest cemetery caretakers they knew of and that Riski was the son of a plastic scavenger who had dumped them amid the tombstones.

When I asked him what he was up to, he said he was hunting geckos.  In the West, this would be like playing with a black cat. Geckos are unpopular in Indonesia because of some residual Hindu animism that still pervades the local folk wisdom. People here think geckos are evil spirits or bad luck, so it was almost Addams Family–esque these two kids wanted to play with them here in a graveyard, a paradise for superstitions.

"You live around here?" I asked.

"Yes, we live together," Riski replied, pointing to a shelter made of propped-up tin roofing.

I asked Riski about his parents, and instead of answering me he suddenly walked to his house, as if he wanted to take us on a tour. Inside was an elderly homeless woman they called "grandma" who apparently lived in the cemetery and looked after the orphans who lived there. She took care of the domestic duties while the kids looked after the graves.

She had, however, filled their heads with junk about school being a waste of money and told them to work here instead. By watching the old graves, plus digging and cleaning, Riski told me he could make about 1,000 rupiah (eight cents), and sometimes up to 5,000 (40 cents). The standard burial costs 20,000 ($1.64), but sometimes there are people who don't pay. I asked what happens when grievers stiff them. "We don't eat," he replied, but his attitude was relentlessly positive. "This has become a hobby," Riski said. "I just feel happy that when people are sad, I actually work. Putting people in the ground is nice. Especially when I do a good job."

Riski runs the Islamic general cemetery area, meaning there are no coffins. It also means, according to custom, that mourners will perform the burial themselves, with the help of the cemetery caretakers. The corpses are bathed, wrapped in a white shroud, and then tied with a rope at the ankles, wrists, and head. The rope must be untied from around the head after the dead body is in the ground—if it isn't, the spirit of the departed is said to turn into a ghost called a  ​pocong.

I asked Riski what the point of guarding a cemetery is. He told me there are "pranksters" who take skulls, soil, and headstones "for talismans and witchery,"referring to superstitious merchants and entrepreneurs who believe that stuff from cemeteries can bring them success in business.

Riski told me he once saw a kuntilanak, the ghost of a pregnant woman who died before giving birth. Legend has if you're haunted by a kuntilanak, she'll cry for her baby until her tears turn into blood. His description fit the legend: "A woman with long hair, and a long white dress, with blood under her eyes." He said he'd seen her by a big tree not far from his shelter. I could see the tree he meant. I asked him when he'd seen her, and he said, "She's there right now," maybe trying extra hard to freak us out.

Soon after, "Grandma" shooed the children away, saying there was work to be done. She introduced me to the third of her "grandsons," Alfian, who is two years old. I asked her about whether she felt like she was exploiting them. "They're here of their own will," she said. "They say they do it for food, which I cook for them." I asked her if she kept their money, and she was upfront about the fact that she did. "They're still very young. They'll waste it on candy. I just want to help them."

Indonesia has a brand-new minister of education with his work cut out for him. In addition to the income inequality that makes schooling for kids like Riski unfeasible, there's also the fact that ​one in three Indonesian schools is in some kind of conflict zone. Despite having the largest economy in Southeast Asia, the country's schools are the ​second worst in the region. In short, despite the presence of new money in Indonesia that's making all those fancy mausoleums feasible, the future looks dismal for Riski's generation.

When I expressed some pessimism about her plight, Grandma said, "All I can do is pray."

Follow Dennis Destryawan on ​Twitter__.

Mike Pearl contributed to this story.