Bali Report #4

15 July 2000

Monday was the mass cremation, the biggest that Ubud had ever had. There were 78 sarcophagi in the shapes of black bulls and red, winged lions, plus one black tiger and one very strange white headless/tailess cow. We asked various people who got which one, and got as many different answers as people we asked. One said that the commoners were the red lions and the Brahmins the black bulls, another said that the family asked the spirit of the deceased in which shape he or she wanted to be buried in. Another said that all of the above was probably true, since the Balinese don't take their caste system very seriously (it was reintroduced and enforced by the Dutch colonizers after it had almost died out.) No one could tell us what the headless cow was about, and it may remain a mystery forever. Perhaps it was Hans Snell, a longtime expat who had died in 1998 and was one of the crematees. A white headless cow sounds about right for an expat European in Bali ...

Cremations are expensive affairs and only the very wealthiest can be cremated immediately. Most people are buried for up to several years until there are enough bodies together to share some of the cost - and for the priests to determine an auspicious time for the cremation. The exceptions are priests and shadow puppeteers, who are not allowed to be buried and must be cremated immediately. I heard some of the people in this cremation had died 4 years ago. The most recent one was a French woman who had died 2 weeks ago in France, but as she was married to a high Brahmin in Ubud was shipped back here for the cremation.

The sarcophagi were lined up in the middle of the city, each on a large bamboo platform. When the festivities started, each sarcophagus was hoisted up onto the shoulders of ten or more men, usually with another person literally riding on the back of the sarcophagus. Each sarcophagus was carried with much shouting and bouncing and twisting around in the street to the cremation grounds just outside the town. Cremations are great tourist draws with the encouragement of the government, partially apparently because the more people who come to your ceremony the more status you have. Given the boisterousness of the "running of the sarcophagi" and the crowds of onlookers, however, it was perhaps inevitable that at some point we all went flying into a ditch as a sarcophagus platform came a bit too close to us. Luckily Mom wasn't hurt. It would be embarrassing to have to explain that I took my mother to Bali and she got killed at a cremation.

The sarcophagi were each inserted into canopied platforms. When all 78 were in place the families processed in with offerings: a roast suckling pig on a spit, a roast duck on a spit, a live chick (that however was ceremonially released), fruit and (small) mattresses, towels and other cloth, all the things that one needs in the next life. Most of this was stuffed into the back of the sarcophagus, which was slit open with a huge knife. After blessing the sarcophagi, they were set on fire more or less simultaneously, turning the grounds into a rather bizarre space: all you could see was flames and smoke and the blackened animal forms turning more and more skeletal. Luckily for us squeamish ones the traditional custom of suttee, wherein the wives of a high-caste man spring into his cremation fire to follow him dutifully into the afterlife, was discontinued a while ago.

This was only one day in many that the families spent with the ceremony. There had been many days of preparation before today, and tomorrow each family would take the ashes to be scattered in the sea. I could guess that by the time everything is finished, you feel like you've done your duty to the deceased and are rather glad that he/she is finally gone.

On Wednesday our own village had the first part of its 6th month ceremony, and our singing teacher announced that we would perform "Purwa Kaning". We expected to be part of a larger group, but much to our surprise we sat alone in a pavilion with a couple of microphones in front of us. Luckily we had that song down pat and were able to give a good rendition of it. Unfortunately our teacher also thought we could do the other song she had just taught us, which we had not studied at all. She led us through it, but there were some rather embarrassing points where we just couldn't follow the rather complex vocal twists and turns and sounded truly awful. Despite that we were told that we were to sing the same pieces next week, at the next installment of the temple ceremony.

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