By Hannah Black
The Bali Times
SILAKARANG ~ In early January my husband Ongky, 10-month-old daughter Lola and I came back home to Bali after a five-and-a-half-month stay in the UK.
Arriving in the late afternoon, the heat was intense, smells an assault on our noses and the roads packed with people heading home from work and school.
It was a bit of a shock to our senses, to say the least. Lola was busily taking everything in and looking more than a little confused. I knew it was going to take a good couple of weeks before everything felt normal again and we were all comfortable in our surroundings.
I planned to relax a bit, sleep off the jetlag and spend some time organizing the house – but it wasn’t to be.
Less than 24 hours after stepping off the plane, my husband’s uncle Pa De, who lived in our compound with his wife, unmarried daughter Kadek, son Ketut, daughter-in-law Luh De and grandson Gede Heru, died suddenly, turning the place into a hive of activity.
I had seen cremations and burial ceremonies in Bali, but always as a spectator, someone curious about the process; this time it was different. I watched his other four daughters come running into the compound from all corners of the village when they heard he had been taken to hospital, and waited anxiously for news from the hospital with the gathered family members.
The wail of the daughters and wife when news of his death came was a show of emotion I’d never seen before in Bali.
The thing that amazed me most was the speed with which preparations began. It was literally minutes after the sad news was delivered that the bundles of palm fronds came out to begin making offerings.
Within an hour there were no less than 60 people in the compound, gathering the necessary items for burial. Within two hours, Pa De’s body had been brought back from the hospital and was being prepared for the ritual purifications.
There was no autopsy, no paperwork, no visits to a funeral home, or caterers to book to provide food for guests. Everyone knew exactly what to do, and as upset as they were, they got on with it.
It wasn’t just our household preparing for a burial. In the 10 days previous to our return home, a priest, a 2-month-old baby and an old man had also passed away, which was obviously a cause for concern for our village.
As Hindus, people were wondering what they had done to bring such sadness upon the village. My 7-year-old niece Dara asked me why so many people had died, but I really didn’t have an answer for her.
On the other hand, it meant as there were already two cremations and one burial planned for the next day, the uncle’s preparations were sped up so he could also be buried on a day deemed auspicious.
On the morning of the ceremonies, we were up around 4:30am, more because of the jetlag than the need to be, and family members were sleepily getting up from their beds and mats outside for those who had not gone home the night before.
Coffee was served and everyone started showering and getting into their ceremonial gear.
Although a couple of cousins looked red around the eyes from crying and lack of sleep, most seemed in good spirits. After all, for the Balinese, cremations are not a time for mourning; they are a celebration of a loved one passing into a new form.
Even if the body is just being buried before it can be cremated, it is more about the purification and preparation for the next life than a time to think about loss. There are often t-shirts made for the cremation ceremonies and you’ll see people laughing and enjoying themselves.
The ceremonial washing of the body before burial began mid-morning and was something that will stay with me forever. People from all over the village, not just family, came to help as the body was washed with holy water and a mixture of spices and flowers. Coins were placed over the eyes and flowers were put in the mouth and ears.
There was no squeamishness – just the opposite: everyone pushed and shoved for their turn to wash the body with their hands.
Seeing a dead body is not a new experience for the majority of villagers, but for me it was and I had mixed emotions. I felt like I should have been scared or found it creepy, but it was difficult for me to even get my head around the fact he was dead because I had so recently seen and spoken to him alive.
After the burial, just when I thought it was all over and we could get on with settling in, the all-nighters began. For three nights after a burial or cremation, family members stay up all night, gambling and drinking to keep themselves awake. I tried to learn to play a popular card game called ceki at around 4am one morning, when a still very confused Lola decided it was morning, but it was way too much for my disoriented and ceremonied-out brain.
So three days later, everyone headed home looking a little bit worse for wear, some richer, some poorer, and we finally made a start on unpacking our suitcases and returning to normality – whatever that is in a Balinese compound.