Death in Bali

I wiped rivers of sweat from my face and smoothed back my damp hair. Squinting through the eye-watering smoke and commotion, I couldn't figure out which was hotter: the searing Indonesian sun or the towering flames erupting from a ceremonial fire in front of me.

My Bali adventure had begun five days before when my Garuda Indonesia flight neared the coastal city of Kuta. I was alone and traveling to a country falling apart over the government's efforts to retain control over East Timor. The international press had reported that Bali was mostly unaffected by the atrocities unleashed against the East Timorese many islands away. But this didn't make an American woman traveling alone in a strange country feel any less apprehensive.

As the plane floated earthward, I gazed down at the hazy, Third World lights of the city below. Bali was meant to be my vacation in tropical paradise after months of working at an isolated Antarctic research station. For weeks, I had meditated on travel-poster images of serene palm trees and perfect beaches; the reality was far different.

A day passed—a day spent hiding in the air-conditioned safety of my hotel room—before I ventured onto the dusty, buzzing streets of nearby Sanur. Each previous attempt had been parried by oppressive equatorial heat that left me dripping in a matter of minutes. I have never felt so exposed and so out-of-place in my entire life as I did that second day, on the streets. As I walked past some local boys hanging in the shadows of an alley, one of them smiled and said plainly, "Here is a white woman." The dark possibilities in that adjective and noun—"white woman"—whirled through my head.

Moments later, like a door flung open, I came upon the noise and commotion of the main drag. Mopeds buzzed like chain saws in an endless, frenzied river. Vendors perched on the shabby, narrow sidewalks, sitting and talking in Balinese, smiling in anticipation as I approached. I moved around them, fending off their sales pitches. "Transport?" they would ask. "Very cheap!" Sometimes several jumped to their feet at the same time in an effort to corral me. I learned quickly to decline politely by uttering, "Tidak terima kasih" —no thanks—as I dipped my shoulder and hurried past with feigned purpose.

Bali had me off-balance, but my wariness was countered by an intriguing sense of having landed on another world. Many days later, I found myself and my bag deposited on a street corner in Ubud, the artistic center of Bali, about an hour's drive up the dense jungle slopes of the island's active interior volcano, Gunung Agung. I walked across the street, past eager purveyors of transport, and into the first hostel I came across. Passing from the busy streets through moss-covered stone walls was like passing a sound barrier. A peaceful, temple-like garden welcomed me, and so did a withered old man with a smile stretching the lines on his face. He led me through a maze of pathways, through lush tropical flowers and colorful birds in hanging cages to my bungalow. After getting me settled, he asked if I would attend the cremation ceremony the next day. I knew nothing of it and said I wasn't sure. He insisted that it was not to be missed: the event was for a member of the royal family.

Relaxing under the rhythmic, cooling drafts of the ceiling fan, I consulted my travel guide about the beliefs surrounding death among the Balinese. Although there are ceremonies for every stage of life, the last ceremony—the cremation, or pitra yadna—is the biggest and most important. Such intense effort and creativity are required that the planning may consume years. During this time, the body may be temporarily buried. An exception is made for the Brahmanas, members of the highest Balinese caste; their bodies are cremated almost immediately. On the day of the big event, the body is carried from the home to the cremation site in a multilevel, hand-built tower made of bamboo, which is decorated profusely and ornately with brightly colored cloth, paper, tinsel, mirrors and flowers. The height of the tower and the number of men required to carry it represent the importance of the deceased. The tower is hauled carefully along the streets to prevent the spirit from being shaken loose; a spirit so dislodged may lose its way into the afterlife. A priest is likely to be hanging precariously from the tower, sprinkling the crowd with holy water, while a musical group, or gamelan, follows, adding uplifting music to the procession. At the cremation site, the body is placed inside the funeral sarcophagus, which takes the form of an elaborately decorated animal—a bull for the Brahmanas, a winged lion or elephant-fish for other castes. Then the whole kit and caboodle—sarcophagus, body, tower and all—is set aflame, sending the soul to heaven. The eldest son has the final, honored task of poking through the ashes to make sure nothing of the body remains unburned. Morbid, I thought to myself as I gazed at the ceiling. And fascinating.

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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