At the family compound of Wayan YesNo, a local friend with whom I often surf, a great multitude has assembled, Balinese people dressed as I am dressed, for ceremony, most of them in black or dark hues, as is customary here in Canggu village. His mother, dead now one week, lies on a bamboo table that has a small square of white cloth suspended over it. She is dressed in white and covered with flowers. Her feet are wrinkled, the skin there already turning gray. I dare not look at her face, lest I cry uncontrollably. Dozens of people crowd around her, dabbing her with leaves dunked in holy water, tying ribbons and bits of colored string around her extremities, applying jewels, piling upon her chest heaps of upacara (pronounced oo-pah-tshara) – shallow baskets woven from palm fronds that contain a few flowers, some grains of rice, a small piece of candy. The people performing the preparatory rites talk and joke and laugh, and if something is done wrong it is done over again under the guidance of one of at least three mangku, or holy men, in attendance. Somewhere, women start to chant, a handful of voices joining in mournful and warbling song; no matter how often I look, though, I cannot seem to catch anyone in the act of singing. A middle-aged Balinese women is holding a young Western girl, perhaps 5 years old. The alert young lady is in the thick of things, a foot from the body. After I've watched the rites for a while, I wander around the busy compound, greeting local friends I come across and shyly acknowledging the nods and gestures from strangers who approve of and praise my Balinese ceremonial attire. “Gantang,” they say. Handsome. As I move about the compound, waves of emotion crash over me, memories of my own mother dying, and I try to feel them as intensely as possible without shedding too many tears. I take a seat over to the side, next to my friend, Hasina, a model and fashion designer from Madagascar. She, too, is in ceremonial attire, an ankle-length sarong, colorful lace shirt, and cloth belt cinched around the waist. “The girls who live here helped me put it all on,” she says. “They couldn't stop giggling.” We drink any cups of sweet coffee that are offered to us and decide to eat some small cakes instead of going out for a more substantial breakfast. Repeatedly, she and I ask YesNo's family if there is some way we can assist, something we can carry, if there is some way we, too, can contribute to the day's labors. My cellphone has poor reception, and so it takes nearly a half hour to translate this question into Indonesian: “Boleh kita membantu, munkin?” May we help, perhaps? Though we are finally understood, our request is met with gently shaking heads and, to our mutual dismay, continued looks of baffled confusion.
Once YesNo's mother has been wrapped in an embroidered white sheet and sewn into coarse rattan matting, she is transferred to a colorful coffin resting on a traditional wooden bed-frame in a nearby room. After the family has paid its respects, other villagers bearing upacara file into and out of the room, whereupon a ceremony starts. There's holy water, praying hands clasping incense, and mountains of upacara piled up at the base of a small representation of a house, made from bamboo, that sits atop a short bamboo pole. Near where I sit, a priest raises aloft a model of a sailing ship with a small mirror attached to it, which YesNo and a few of his relatives face, and pray toward, whilst holding a white sheet above their heads. One young lady in their midst is clasping – tightly, and in both arms – a framed picture of the departed matron. With a tack-hammer blessed beforehand, a mangku nails the coffin lid shut, whereupon a group of local men carry the brightly adorned plywood box out into the street. They lift it up onto a roofed platform, a palanquin dressed in a riot of colorful fabrics; its base is a lattice of stout bamboo poles; mirrors sewn into bamboo frames fringed with paper adornments hang loosely from every side. The deceased woman's youngest grandson climbs up to sit on top of the coffin after it has been securely tied down. A bowl overflowing with fruits and colorful paper offerings is placed between his legs, a mangku climbs up on the bamboo framework, and then the ensemble is lifted into the air – people and coffin alike – to allow a wheeled cart to be maneuvered under it. Once everything is in place, we set off down the street toward a sea-side temple located perhaps a kilometer away. Men with long bamboo poles precede our parade, to lift low-hanging electrical wires and tree branches out of the way of the coffin's more than story-high processional mount. On its rear-facing wall hangs a picture of the woman as she appeared shortly before her death. For some reason, all 7 of us foreigners joining the procession find ourselves walking together, near the back. At certain intersections, the mount is lifted up into the air and spun around multiple times by the dozens of men carrying it.
The cemetery sits a stone's throw from the rough and churning seas. The sky is dark, a storm impending. Once the youngest grandson climbs down, the coffin is removed from its perch, carried onto the grounds by members of her family, then paraded around the contraption in which it will burn, a steel framework with a length of corrugated steel shoved underneath it. Wayan YesNo tells me that cremation is a new tradition in Canggu village, that, previously, the dead were simply buried in the sandy soil, with no other markers to indicated their resting place than those committed to the community's collective memory.
After the coffin is lowered into the crematory framework, its lid is pried open, the body is lifted out, and the coffin is carefully removed, as are the rattan matting and embroidered white sheet. The body is lowered onto loose steel poles placed just above the corrugated sheet. Baskets of gifts – many of them containing real Rupiah notes skewered onto thin strips of bamboo – are piled on top of the body. The departed woman's second-oldest daughter offers me a lit stick of incense, which I lay down among others like it, burning tip pointed toward the face of the departed. A light rain starts to fall, causing many in attendance to head over to the temple's large, open-air activities hall, where they buy food and drink from the push-cart vendors already assembled there. The man in charge of immolation drags his implements over to the framework, a large cannister of compressed petrol and a pair of 3-meter-long torches attached to it with translucent plastic tubing. He places the torches at the body's feet, lights them with disposable tinder, and sets to his work, as needed adjusting the torches as they blast tissue from bone, turning it to ash. Members of Wayan YesNo's family wander from group to group passing out candies, drinks, and sweet, home-made ices made with pickling water. The other foreigners disappear. Only Hasina and I remain.
After nearly an hour, all that's left of the body are a few fragments of bone, which a mangku sifts through, looking for certain types. While a high priest sitting with his back to the sea sings the appropriate rites from an elevated platform piled high with baskets of upacara, the hands-on mangku arranges upon a piece of white cloth bits of bone into the shape of a human, then transfers them to a bowl lined with banana leaves. To counter my instinctive urge to take shelter from the bolts of lighting flashing through the skies above, I reach for my 3rd chakra swastika, which keeps me calm, grounded, relaxed. The wind is now so strong that the stinging drops of rain are coming at us sideways. I am using my body to shield the man in his labors, and as I step from side to side with the changing gusts, Wayan YesNo's oldest son moves with me, to stay in my wind-shadow. Hasina, who's been near me during most of the ceremony, gestures at a tall, 5-by-8 meter canopy covering heaps of offerings, which is lurching and buckling in the wind. Most of the women who'd been taking shelter under it have already fled to the activities hall. A dozen Balinese people push against its tubular steel legs, trying to keep it upright. “Do you think we should help them?” she says. I initially say no, but when the wind increases in strength, we rush over to it across the muddy ground, me to one side and she to the other, where we strain with the others trying to keep the structure upright. To no avail. The strong wind lifts the canopy off of its legs, and we lower its windward side to the ground as slowly as we can as it collapses. Then, I run to the side still partially standing and get my spine under it, for support. The hands-on mangku scurries underneath the failed structure, mortar and pestle in hand. “Can you stay here and help holding the roof, so I can finish doing this?” he says, in English, pointing to the bowl containing the woman's bones. I nod in affirmation and reach up for a better grip on the steel crossbeams. With each blast of wind, the canvas tarpaulin snaps and heaves, threatening to go airborne even with six grown adults straining to hold it down. Lightning flashes, followed by immediate thunder, and I try hard not to dwell on the fact that I'm standing in a puddle of water whilst holding aloft a broad grid of steel beams. Once again, I feel into my 3rd chakra, and find stillness there.
I look outside and see Wayan YesNo, with two people by his side, start walking straight into the gale with his hands raised in prayer in front of his head, wailing and shouting as if to drive off the withering assault of wind and rain and scorching light. Such are the forces of Nature that he is leaning sharply into the wind, his body bent forward at an acute angle. After I see him take a few steps, he appears to vanish into the flying sheets of pelting wet. At my feet, the hands-on mangku finishes his duties. He's ground the bones into an off-white paste, which he carefully wraps up in a piece of cloth. And, with that, the winds lessen, the rains diminish, and the canopy above us stops shaking. After the many baskets filled with offerings under it have been moved out into the open, we lower what remains of it to the ground.
While the next phases of ceremony are being prepared, the hands-on mangku explains to me that the strong wind was the old woman's soul escaping into the next world. Outside, next to the collapsed canopy, stands a folding table piled high with offerings. It had been exposed to the full force of the storm, but all of the upacara – those shallow palm-frond baskets that weigh no more than 30 grams each – appear to be still there, regardless if heaped up or sitting alone. “These offerings,” the hands-on mangku says, in Indonesian, “did not fly way in the strong wind.” “They could not fly away?” I ask. “No,” he replies, “they could fly away – but they did not want to fly away.” (Later that day, friends who live a half kilometer from the beach will tell me that the wind was ripping nailed-down lengths of bamboo from rooftops, splintering tree limbs, and tossing wooden furniture around as if it were made of paper.) As the proceedings resume and people start to return from the shelter of the activities hall, Hasina and I, soaked to the bone and shivering, begin to wonder if it is time for us to leave. The deceased woman's oldest daughter comes over to talk with us while what to me looks the final rites are being read. I sense a pleading behind her kind words, but cannot quite place what it is. The holy man, once more seated on his high platform, starts to ring his bell, uttering mantras. Women standing toward the back launch into their mournful chanting. A villager I barely know approaches, looks at me for a moment, then says, quietly, “Pulang.” Home. Gradually, whilst bowing with both hands joined together in front of our faces to the few people who make eye contact with us, we start moving toward a flight of concrete stairs that leads down onto the beach. As we are walking away across the sand, I realize something. “At the beginning of the ceremony today,” I say to Hasina, “we asked if we could perhaps help, or carry something. And what did we help carry, in the end? The canopy. We carried the canopy. In spite of wind and rain and lighting. That was our sacrifice...”
Thank you, Pak Wayan YesNo, for allowing me to attend your mother's cremation; may her return to this mortal plain be swift, and gentle.
© americanifesto / 場黑麥