Background: Falling numbers of maternal deaths have stimulated an interest in investigating cases of life threatening obstetric morbidity or near miss. The purpose of this study was to document the frequency and causes of near miss and maternal deaths in four hospitals in West Java, Indonesia. Methods: Cross sectional study in four hospitals in two districts in Banten province, Indonesia. We reviewed registers and case notes to identify the numbers and causes of near miss and death between November 2003 and October 2004. Near miss cases were defined based on organ dysfunction, clinical and management criteria. Near miss were categorized by whether or not the woman was at a critical state at admission by reviewing the final signs at admission. Results: The prevalence of near miss was much greater in public than in private hospitals (17.3% versus 4.2%, p = 0.000). Hemorrhage and hypertensive diseases were the most common diagnoses associated with near miss, and vascular dysfunction was the most common criterion of organ dysfunction. The occurrence of maternal deaths was 1.6%, with non-obstetric complications as the leading cause. The majority (70.7%) of near miss in public hospitals were in a critical state at admission but this proportion was much lower in private hospitals (31.9%). Conclusion: This is the first study to document near miss in public and private hospitals in Indonesia. Close to a fifth of admissions in public hospitals were associated with near miss; and the critical state in which the women arrived suggest important delays in reaching the hospitals. Even though the private sector takes an increasingly larger share of facility-based births in Indonesia, managing obstetric emergencies remains the domain of the public sector.