copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved
2/21/98 Somewhere outside Kuta, Indonesia
How often are you invited to a funeral? I'd been offered just abouteverything in Kuta in the ten days since I got here, but transport to acremation seemed too weird to pass up. So a group of five of us hoppedin a van at nine in the morning and trundled off through the rice paddiesto a small village north of Kuta. Our driver, Ketut (the fifth Ketut I'vemet) is clearly a cultural maven, having brought us to a cockfight theprevious evening.
Sure enough, we arrived in the center(?) of town and a group of 25 Balinesewere putting the finishing touches to two massive, highly ornamented floats.The first one was a slightly larger-than-life size black bull gilded aroundthe head and tail with gold foil and bamboo offerings. The second lookedlike a five-layerwedding cake 20 feet high sporting a photograph of the deceased, twotall umbrellas, two dead chickens, a live caged bird, and a pair of brightyellow and white sashes. On either side of the cake were xylophone-likeinstruments called gangsas and small stools. Both of the constructionswere mounted on thick bamboo lattice works thirty-feet wide.
I guess an island has to take it's tourism pretty seriously when it'sokay to bring a bus of tourists to a unknown persons death ritual. I hadbeen considering the appropriateness of attending for a few days, and Ihave to say it seemed pretty awkward. Imagine attending your Aunt Betty'swake and a dozen Japanese tourists walked in toting cameras. I'm not sureUncle 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 womencarried bulky, hand-made bamboo, flower and rice offerings on their heads.Few of the locals seemed to understand what was going on any better thanus. That was comforting, considering we five were the only light-skinnedfolks to be seen anywhere.
After a while the casket arrived-a small white paper and wood construction-anda flurry of activity ensued hoisting it to the top of the multi-layeredfloat 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 thegangsas and began to play, accompanied by thirty or so gamelan band matesplaying 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 smilesand joins in the group photos and tells us when to get into the van. Isuppose its a good deal for two dollars each.
The music began to get speedier when the next process began. A youngman, perhaps the eldest son, mounted the bull. Fifty men each grabbed thebamboo supports and lifted both floats onto their shoulders. They beganto shake the floats vigorously up and down, spinning them repeatedly around,and rushing back and forth through the street. After fifteen minutes ofhectic dancing, which I am told is to confuse the deceased spirit so itwon't come back to earth, the floats and participants began a somewhatslower walk down the road, stopping frequently to lift electrical linesover the taller float (and perhaps avoiding several other funerals laterthat week.)
The procession lasted two hours, winding through the town and its outlyingrice 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 birdwas released. When it only flew a few yards to the branches of a smallbush a loud cry arose while the men tossed rocks at it till it escapedover the paddies. The crowd roared approval. I'm figuring the bird is asymbol 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 openedup. 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 variousliquids by a group of old men who clearly had done this before, but eachhad their own idea about which order things should be completed. Aftera little bickering, the women emptied their offerings onto the body, includingtheir white waist-scarves, and the bull was re-sealed.
Next the immediate family posed for a photograph with the bull and aceremonial fire was lit underneath the belly. At this point most of theparticipants 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 crematingthe bull, body and offerings.
This aspect of the process was decidedly not traditional. Each of theworkmen had a large, hand-pumped flamethrower with a three to five footgasoline flame. The bull burnedoff 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 ofthe bull. Eventually the wire supports burned away and the body fell tothe ground as the jet fires roared.
As we walked away, one of the locals informed me that the rest of thecremation took nearly two hours. The only remaining men were the bell anddrum 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 usup in the van back to Kuta and offered to take us the next day to a birthceremony. Just what a nervous father-to-be needs, five tourists in thedelivery room with video cameras.