Invitation to a Cremation

Dewa knocks on my door at 10 a.m. “Do you want to see cremation?” he asks. “Of course!” I am instructed to be ready at 12:30. At 12:15 I’m waiting with a lovely couple from France who have also been invited. Dewa’s uncle, his mother’s brother, passed away over a week ago. The holy man has designated today as an auspicious day for cremation and there will be three of them. We are hurried into the car and make our way toward the cemetery. Suddenly Dewa says, “Get out here!” We scramble onto the street and there it is. The procession begins literally in front of me with the women and their offerings.

We are in a part of town where the tourists don’t come. The energy is much more like a wedding than a funeral. I am entranced. The bamboo platform holding the black bull is coming directly toward me.

I asked Dewa earlier if it was okay to photograph the ceremony. “Take pictures of everything. It’s okay,” he told me. So I did.

There he is. The black bull. Only holy men are cremated in a white bull. For everyone else the bull is black. When there is an intersection the bull circles three times around the intersection before going in a new direction. At one point a young man climbs on the back of the bull and the carriers make the bull buck and whirl but the rider keeps his seat.

It’s very hot and the men stop to rest while police clear the traffic in front of the procession.

They’re up again and on their way. The next to appear is an ornate, pagoda type tower. Three men cling to the sides. At this point I don’t know if the deceased is inside the bull or inside the tower or somewhere else entirely. It turns out the coffin is being transported in the tower.

As the procession continues on its way, men on the sides of the street spray water on those carrying the heavy platforms. It is a welcomed dousing on this hot hot day.

At one point the tower is too tall for the electrical wire spanning the street. The offending wire is ripped down and left hanging so the parade can pass.

Then comes the band of cymbals, gongs and drums played by young men and boys.  The percussion continues from beginning to end, rising and falling in volume and intensity. When the band finally stops they are vigorously applauded.

As the pagoda passes I notice the picture of the departed mounted on the back of the conveyance.

The bull is carefully moved to this platform and the men cut a chunk out of its back. I am transfixed by the elaborate ceremony. A white coffin is removed from the tower and a procession of women carrying offerings and men carrying the coffin circle the bull three time. The coffin is lifted and held up while the body, wrapped in white, is removed and placed in a hollowed out area in the bull.

The men around the body receive gifts and offerings from the people. They place them on the body. More and more gifts are brought. Finally the holy man sprinkles the contents of several different containers on the body and a white sheet is placed over all.

The back of the bull is once more set in place. Large bamboo logs are put under the bull and a motor pumps fuel onto the base of the pyre.

Incense is lighted and the bull begins to burn. Nobody is crying.

At this point the entire crowd moves into the street and words are spoken (in Balinese) over a battery operated megaphone. The crowd of us begins to exit the cemetery and as we pass we are sprinkled liberally with holy water. In this photo people are beginning to fill the street.

After that the crowd disperses fairly quickly. It has been an unforgettable two hours. I feel incredibly privileged to have been allowed a glimpse into this aspect of Balinese tradition that few visitors ever witness.

Dewa provides me with a map so that I can find my way to Ubud center since he has family matters to attend to. I only have to ask directions twice before I am back on familiar turf. Parched and dripping I seek refuge in Warung Laba Laba.

Here, in a shady perch above the street I sip watermelon juice (my current favorite) and order papaya chicken salad. It arrives, light and refreshing.

I opt to pass on Thousand Island Dressing…one just never knows about Thousand Island Dressing! But I can’t resist a sweet finish: one scoop of the creamiest vanilla ice cream this side of a Wisconsin dairy sitting atop one scoop of Balinese mocha.

I would return to Warung Laba Laba just for the ice cream!

Back in my room I can hardly wait to see the photos. I only wish I could include the sounds and smells that made this day one of the highlights of my life. Suksama, Dewa.Thank you.

For information, $1 per minute

Breakfast happens here. I shot this photo from my balcony, and that chair by the post is where I sit every morning. The little canal is home to the playful coi that keep me entertained as they fight over the hibiscus blossoms that happen to land in the water. Each statue, and there are many, is adorned with a flower every morning as part of the gratitude offerings made daily here.

Fido appears to be dismayed that he has lost his flower! Others have been blown into the canal where the coi immediately dart toward them, imagining I suppose, that they are bright red treats.

Dewa appeared as I was polishing off the last of my egg and cheese on whole wheat toast and I asked him about the Hindu caste system. He laughed and said that it doesn’t apply anymore, then proceeded to tell me that there are four levels. Brahmins are the holy men and women who have tremendous responsibility but can make no money. They depend entirely upon the proceeds from the rice fields owned by the temples. There are other forms of revenue but that explanation was lost on me since Dewa’s English is very good but my understanding of it isn’t always spot on.  Kshatriyas are the next level. They are the military strata and Dewa informed me that he is one of these. Vaishyas, third in the heirarchy, are the administrators in the system, and Shudras are the workers. Men are born into their strata and cannot move from one level to another. “However,” Dewa says, eyes twinkling, “women can by marriage. Also, there are levels within these levels and men can move up or down in status depending upon their abilities.”

He goes on to explain to me that the Balinese also have a strict order for events in life. As a young man you find a girlfriend. Then you get your education. Then you marry. Then you make money…”Lots of money,” he grins and adds, “for information, $1.00 per minute!” I join his hearty laughter at this joke. “The the last stage of life is wisdom,” he says, “deep connection with the spirit.” He points then to a woman working in the rice paddy in front of us and explains that she is Shudras, a worker. He asks me if I would like to work in the paddy? I look at the woman, knee deep in mud, bent over to tend the young shoots, and I wonder what life must be like for her. I look back at Dewa, “I’m very lucky.” I tell him. And he agrees.

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