After several hours navigating the winding roads of Mount Batur, Indonesia, I am finally getting the hang of driving on the left side of the road and from the right side of the car. My confidence grows with each passing kilometer. I weave in and out of lanes, pass large diesel trucks, dodge small motorbikes, and dive into hairpin turns in my horribly under-powered van.
Exhilarated, and now carsick, I arrive in the early afternoon at the small village of Trunyan which is nestled between Batur Lake and the rim of the crater of Mount Batur, an active volcano. Trunyan village was founded by native Balinese over a thousand years ago. Today, this area is popular among travelers as a starting point for treks to Mount Batur. Trunyan is also the site of the Pancering Jagat Temple, in which locals go to pay tributes and to participate in religious ceremonies (unfortunately, foreigners are not permitted to visit). A lesser known site, however, even among Indonesians, is the isolated and mysterious open-air cemetery, located a few kilometers from the main village and accessible only by small canoe. During my research on Bali, months earlier, I was fascinated by the images and descriptions of this unusual place, and now I was finally here, excited and anxious to experience it for myself.
With my guide and new friend, Ketut, on the oars, it’s a short 30 minute trip over the calm waters to my destination. As my boat approaches the dock, I can already make out a few human skulls surrounding the entrance to the cemetery. I nearly drop my camera in the lake as I hastily gather my gear and attempt to capture one more shot of our approach to the small wooden dock.
As we approach the entrance, I inform Ketut that I will need several hours to create my images. He smiles, lights up a smoke, and watches me as I begin to work. I start setting up my tripod and other gear, taking great care around a large collection of human skulls. Ketut only stays for a short while before he leaves me to my shooting and disappears for the next two hours. I think he sees that I have respect and reverence for this sacred place, and so there is no need for him to stay and keep watch. Now, I am alone, surrounded by human remains. The only sound is the occasional shutter click from my camera.
The people of Trunyan have a longstanding death ritual in which the deceased are laid to rest on the roots of the taru menyan tree. These open-air graves are then surrounded by a bamboo fence. According to the Trunyan, the taru menyan roots aid in the decomposition process while also greatly reducing the odor of decay. I approach one of the small bamboo enclosures and I am faced with a man who appears to be recently deceased. I find out later that he was a young, unmarried man, who passed approximately 40 days earlier. I sit with him for a half hour, alone, wondering about his life, his family, who he is, how he died.
Unfortunately, I have suffered the loss of many close friends over the years and death has been an all too frequent presence in my life. And here, among the deceased, in the most visceral way, I am reminded again of my own mortality and fragile existence.I look at the face of this recently deceased man, and, omitting nationality, we are the same. Like him, I will live, love, and eventually, perish. I will be laid to rest. I will decay. After a few hours of shooting and observing, it’s time to find my guide and head back to the dock. I collect my gear, taking care not to disturb the scene. The trip back to the village is slow and quiet. I’m thankful for the experience and the reminders about life and its brevity. I hope the photographs are worthy.