How often are you invited to a funeral? I'd been offered just about everything in Kuta in the ten days since I got here, but transport to a cremation seemed too weird to pass up.
How often are you invited to a funeral? I'd been offered just about everything in Kuta in the ten days since I got here, but transport to a cremation seemed too weird to pass up. So a group of five of us hopped in a van at nine in the morning and trundled off through the rice paddies to a small village north of Kuta. Our driver, Ketut (the fifth Ketut I've met) is clearly a cultural maven, having brought us to a cockfight the previous evening.
Sure enough, we arrived in the center(?) of town and a group of 25 Balinese were putting the finishing touches to two massive, highly ornamented floats. The first one was a slightly larger-than-life size black bull gilded around the head and tail with gold foil and bamboo offerings. The second looked like a five-layer wedding cake 20 feet high sporting a photograph of the deceased, two tall umbrellas, two dead chickens, a live caged bird, and a pair of bright yellow and white sashes. On either side of the cake were xylophone-like instruments called gangsas and small stools. Both of the constructions were mounted on thick bamboo lattice works thirty-feet wide.
I guess an island has to take it's tourism pretty seriously when it's okay to bring a bus of tourists to a unknown persons death ritual. I had been considering the appropriateness of attending for a few days, and I have to say it seemed pretty awkward. Imagine attending your Aunt Betty's wake and a dozen Japanese tourists walked in toting cameras. I'm not sure Uncle Harold would understand.
All around the street were men and women in traditional funeral garb, muted print sarongs, black shirts and black and gold headdresses. The women carried bulky, hand-made bamboo, flower and rice offerings on their heads. Few of the locals seemed to understand what was going on any better than us. That was comforting, considering we five were the only light-skinned folks to be seen anywhere.
After a while the casket arrived-a small white paper and wood construction-and a flurry of activity ensued hoisting it to the top of the multi-layered float and lashing it down. Climbing on top of the casket was an old woman, with a seemingly holy-man hanging on each side. Two musicians manned the gangsas and began to play, accompanied by thirty or so gamelan band mates playing drums and bells following behind.
While Ketut is an expert at finding interesting things for us to do, he is bereft of any explanation once we get to the event. But he smiles and joins in the group photos and tells us when to get into the van. I suppose its a good deal for two dollars each.
The music began to get speedier when the next process began. A young man, perhaps the eldest son, mounted the bull. Fifty men each grabbed the bamboo supports and lifted both floats onto their shoulders. They began to shake the floats vigorously up and down, spinning them repeatedly around, and rushing back and forth through the street. After fifteen minutes of hectic dancing, which I am told is to confuse the deceased spirit so it won't come back to earth, the floats and participants began a somewhat slower walk down the road, stopping frequently to lift electrical lines over the taller float (and perhaps avoiding several other funerals later that week.)
The procession lasted two hours, winding through the town and its outlying rice fields, coming finally to rest under two large Banyan trees on a ridge. The chickens were cut down and tossed into the crowd, and the live bird was released. When it only flew a few yards to the branches of a small bush a loud cry arose while the men tossed rocks at it till it escaped over the paddies. The crowd roared approval. I'm figuring the bird is a symbol for the soul of the cremation participant. Ketut smiled and nodded, but then that's pretty much all he does.
The holy men descended from the layer-cake float and the bull was opened up. The body, wrapped in layers of woven bamboo leaves and a white sash, was removed from the casket, placed in the bull and annointed with various liquids by a group of old men who clearly had done this before, but each had their own idea about which order things should be completed. After a little bickering, the women emptied their offerings onto the body, including their white waist-scarves, and the bull was re-sealed.
Next the immediate family posed for a photograph with the bull and a ceremonial fire was lit underneath the belly. At this point most of the participants slowly left the Banyan tree and sauntered back up the road. A dozen of so people stood around as two workmen began their task of cremating the bull, body and offerings.
This aspect of the process was decidedly not traditional. Each of the workmen had a large, hand-pumped flamethrower with a three to five foot gasoline flame. The bull burned off layers, first cloth, then bamboo, finally wire and wood. In the belly, after all the offerings had burned away, you saw the human form emerge, hands clutched over the chest, feet and legs reaching out to the tail of the bull. Eventually the wire supports burned away and the body fell to the ground as the jet fires roared.
As we walked away, one of the locals informed me that the rest of the cremation took nearly two hours. The only remaining men were the bell and drum band, crouched in a temple a hundred yards away playing and chanting.
The rest of the town was empty as our cheery driver Ketut picked us up in the van back to Kuta and offered to take us the next day to a birth ceremony. Just what a nervous father-to-be needs, five tourists in the delivery room with video cameras.