Big Ketut asks, “Do you want to go to a funeral?”
Executing a suave backflip, I admit “I wouldn’t mind.”
“Important Brahmin funeral” he said, “Big deal.” Bali still observes a 4-caste system with Brahmins at the top of the ladder.
Ketut had set the whole thing up, a complicated endeavor. One driver was to take me in to the capital city, Denpasar, a trip of about an hour and a half. The driver would turn me over to a guide who would try to keep me out of trouble. At the end of the funeral, the guide would turn me over to another driver for the return to Ubud.
Yikes! I needed formal attire, and I had less than 2 hours to get it together. I quick-stepped up Monkey Forest road to the information kiosk across from Ubud Palace. The attendant told me to go down to the big pubic market and get sarong, sash, white shirt, and udeng (the traditional men’s head scarf). I was concerned that I would choose something that would brand me as a clown, pervert, commie, or American fool trying to pass for Balinese. She told me not to worry, that men and women and fools all wore the same fabrics, and to pick something I liked.
For a mere $19 I was dressed to kill. Maybe that’s a bad image, attending as I was, a funeral.
There was already a huge crowd milling around when I was deposited on a street corner in downtown Denpasar. As I stood there wondering what to do, a small woman came up and introduced herself as my guide. She was the spitting image of “Miss Swan,” the character so brilliantly created by Alex Borstein on MAD TV. She told me her name, but I couldn’t remember it, so I just thought of her (and still do) as Miss Swan.
My diminuitive guide informed me that I could peek into the inner temple, but not enter, the ceremony within being attended by family and close friends only. As I looked over the shoulder of another gentleman, I realized that I was the only westerner on the scene. This was not Tourist Bali. This was the real deal.
I found a place on the other side of the street and sat down on the curb to wait. Directly across from me were two large, exotic structures. One was obviously a big black bull.
With a big red schlong.
The other structure was a funeral tower. This funeral was an upscale affair, though the tower was on the smallish side, as these things go. An inner city funeral, the tower had to pass under low slung power lines. Important funeral towers in other environs can be 7 or 9 platforms high.
Pall bearers brought the Brahmin’s body out of the temple and placed it on the tower.
Gradually the procession began to get itself organized, I’m not sure how. Miss Swan excused herself, and left me all alone in the crowd, stranger in a strange land, speaking less than a dozen polite Balinese phrases. Isolated and vulnerable, but . . . I liked the sensation. I liked it a lot. I was anonymous, yet part of something significant. I was alert, but detached, almost floating. If I’m not making much sense, not describing it well, here’s the even stranger part: the whole scene felt very familiar, and I felt very comfortable, at ease, safe, peaceful, happy. More than happy . . . ecstatic. What’s up with that? Well, never mind, I’ll think about it later.
One of the first “floats” in the parade was a bull’s head, not a paper-mache contraption, a real bull had been sacrificed.
Procession attendants (for lack of a more accurate term) shoved and coerced people into position. This is a good time to mention that the particpants were light hearted, laughing and fooling around. This was no somber, mournful affair, more of a cross between Chinese New Year, the homecoming parade, and a New Orleans jazz burial.
Dancers, reminding me of our own Native American kachina dancers, took their place.
Presiding over the funeral, two Brahmin priestesses were helped into litters and then lifted on the shoulders of strong young men.
Miss Swan returned with a surprise invitation. “They want to know if you want to help carry the tower?” I was astonished, and deeply honored, but I had to decline, sorrowfully. My lower back was giving me a lot of pain on that day. In a moment of clarity that surprised even me, Macho Man, I knew I would be a liability. That tower looked far too heavy for this gimpy guy. Too bad. Now that would have been a great bit for this article. Perhaps I should lie and say I did it. What do you think?
At last the funeral procession lumbered into motion, down the busy city street, scooters zipping by, men with long forked poles racing ahead to lift the power lines up high enough for us to scooch under.
Along the way another funeral procession, a light-weight, lower-caste affair, passed us like we were standing still.
Several city blocks later we turned into the cremation grounds, a park-like area with many large trees that provided shade for the hundreds of participants. Two, not one but two, full gamelan orchestras were taking turns providing music that I assume was appropriate to the occassion, but then, how would I know?
I found a place in the shade of the orchestra tent to watch the culmination of the event. Here we go. The body, looking like the Mummy in an old movie, was taken off the tower.
The tower itself was treated roughly, taken to one side and tipped over, later to be burned.
The body was carried over to the big black bull. Priests cut off the top of the bull and set it to one side.
The body was placed inside the bull then unwrapped from it’s many layers of shroud.
Priests and priestesses performed various rites over the body. Gifts, food, flowers, and other objects were placed inside the cavity with the corpse. This process took more than an hour with non-stop gamelan tunes to set the mood. Over to the side, a rowdy gambling game got underway among the young men, peals of laughter and excited shouts of lamentation and exultation, depending upon the roll of the dice. I found it dis-respectful and annoying. “Knock it off, guys, I’M TRYING TO BE HOLY!”
Large men stacked banana tree logs and firewood under the bull casket, and with a whoosh of a propane torch set the whole shebang on fire.
After a while the charred corpse fell out of the bottom of the bull. Cremation guys collected the ashes which were given to the family to be spread at sea.
As the pyre died down, the party broke up. I found Miss Swan who delivered me to a driver for my trip back to Ubud. He was not interested in playing tour guide, and I was happy to sit in the back seat, silent and contemplative, watching the rice paddies drift by the window.
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