Death in Bali

That evening I met the lunatic. I didn't know yet that he was a lunatic, merely that he had an affinity for backgammon and was desperate for someone to play with. He looked in his mid-40s and said he came from Anchorage. I watched, amused, as he told me which moves I should make to win the game. Still unaware that he was not merely idiosyncratic but insane, I agreed to rent a car with him the next day and tour parts of the island.

During the tour, I discovered he was a lunatic. Like the night before, he wore shabby clothes, but now he was equipped with an expensive camera and an abrasive arrogance. He held in contempt anything local that was not a part of the fixed landscape. Before that car trip, I would have thought it impossible for an American to drive more recklessly than the Balinese locals who frequently pass one another at high speed with mere inches to spare. The lunatic showed me that I was wrong. We rocketed and honked past green rice paddies, bony dogs and dilapidated buildings, while my acquaintance told me of his younger years hanging out with Janis Joplin. Stubbornly, I maintained a relaxed, cool exterior; inside, I feared for my life.

On our return to Ubud that afternoon, we saw the smoke. It poured like oil into the sky, mingling with lush, greener-than-green palm trees just outside the city. The cremation ceremony had begun. Closer, the streets were jammed with vehicles and people walking hurriedly in gilded ceremonial sarongs. Jamming the car into an impossibly small space, we snatched our cameras, headed into the turmoil, and were swept into a huge open area, at the center of which stood a 12-foot-high black bull, fully ablaze. Like a towering piñata, it seemed constructed from a mélange of paper, wood and wire, its skin made from some impossibly fur-like cloth, its chest adorned with plastic jewels. Its tail pointed obscenely heavenward.

I walked among an excited crowd, tourists snapping photos, vendors and locals seated on the sidelines watching. Groups of natives in ceremonial garb huddled together, talking intensely. I stood in front of the funeral fire, feeling the heat radiating from it, hotter even than the sun. The flames leapt through the body of the bull, smoke coiled from it, and the once-spectacular sculpture began to disintegrate. I watched, enthralled, as the skin melted, exposing the skeleton-like framework. Soon enough, I noticed something else, another mass hidden within, and I realized with some horror that it was the cloth-wrapped body. I knew that this body had once been a child, then a young woman and eventually just this—a corpse bundled into the belly of a wooden bull that was now "fully involved," as American firefighters like to say.

I knew this was something I would never willingly have witnessed—would not have made a special appointment with this particular method of marking a death. But it was like trying not to look at a traffic accident. I took in the entire scene. Through the haze, I could see a man walking slowly on the long bridge that led from the bull to the bamboo tower. He carried an armful of flowers and offerings. Soon after, the tower itself was set afire as well. Now everything was burning, for what seemed like hours. Flames licked along the framework of the bull, and the body had now fallen partially from its failing sarcophagus, while attendants used long poles to try to prop it back up into the hot center of the inferno. Then suddenly, the charred tower, which had ignited like a torch and was quickly consumed, leaned precariously. It hung there for a moment and then toppled with a glorious crash of sparks and ash to the ground. A group of spectators dashed away from it in panic. The crowd grew silent, and as if after a grand finale, people began to flow from the scene.

I lingered and felt suddenly flustered, as if my eyes were somehow violating the sanctity of the dead, so I turned and walked away, too, dazed. I had witnessed a ceremony of death that few will ever see in our country, where the job of preparing and releasing the dead is rarely intimate, rarely a celebration. We remember our own dead by shipping them off unceremoniously to a tilt-up mortuary where strangers care for what's left of them. We wear black and we grieve; in death as in life, these Balinese exalted in color, creativity and music.

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