15 - Cremate This (Ubud, Bali, Indonesia)

Tailgating at a Balinese cremation? Get ready to live. Trinkets for sale or rent. Ultrasound from an ultra asshole? Hath I murdered this man’s wife?

by Mr. Nos T. O’maniac


FINALLY, I WENT TO A CREMATION. No, that’s not right. I went near a cremation. No, that’s not right either. More like a pregame warm-up. It’d be like going to a tailgate party but skipping the main event. If anything was cremated, it was my ambition to watch a cremation ceremony. Ketut (see here and here) called to let me know the cremation he promised was close at hand. I accepted his offer to accompany me, arriving at his house for the customary lunch and coffee before departure. 

Unfortunately, shit got awkward.  


Balinese Cremation Ceremony

The Balinese view the cremation of a loved one as a time of celebration, and this is one reason why the Ngaben ceremony is so remarkable to outsiders. The local people are usually willing to allow respectful foreign guests to experience this unique way of sending off the deceased to the next life. One of the surprising things is that the person who is being cremated may have already been dead for years, but it is only now that the family can afford the cremation ceremony...READ MORE

He wanted me to purchase his wood carvings, an issue he'd brought up repeatedly. I tried to justify my reluctance. It was a storage issue. No room for souvenirs. None. I was traveling light (one pair of pants, one pair of shoes, etc.) and could barely fit all I had in my pack to begin with. Bali was the beginning of a long journey. Anything I bought would have to be mailed home. Not a deal-breaker, but I preferred to save the hassle for the end of my Indonesian exploration. Where the hell was I supposed to put shit? He said he understood…and then presented seven small carvings, sanded and stained, I suspect made specifically for me. He got that I couldn’t take them until I left, but hoped I’d pay in advance.

He said his wife had done the work and was hoping for compensation. Mmm, mmm, ba da, boom boom, ba bay, boom boom boom, ba bay bay, pressure pushing down on me, pressing down on you, no man ask for, under pressure that burns a building down, splits a family in two, puts people on streets… And then came the punch line: She needed an operation. He produced an ultrasound image. I had no idea what I was looking at. The cost? Five million rupiahs (around $440 US). So, if I didn’t buy the carvings, I’d be murdering his wife. Awesome.

Discouraging, yes? I’d like to think I’m not a heartless prick though I’m sure you can appreciate el problemo. Was he being straight with me, and how could I know for sure? If her illness were legitimate, and they were truly desperate for relief, I wasn’t against giving them money. Normally, charitable donations get sucked into a black hole and are based solely on reputation and trust. With the Ketut scenario, one could see the money in action. Still, how could I be certain? Chaperone them to the doctor? Prove it, fuckers! Ahhh…fiddlesticks. 

I resisted and waited to see if he continued to push. Silence was my firewall. I despised testing a poor man's resolve, but it felt like the only way to assess legitimacy. If he was upset by this, his poker face was exquisite.

We left for the ceremony at 12 pm. Five and a half hours later, I returned to my hotel. No smoke. No fire…sigh. It’s an all-day event. The actual cremation serves as the climax to a morning and afternoon spent cleansing the body, making offerings, and reciting prayers. Prayers are delivered over a loudspeaker from the deceased's home throughout the day. It is incessant. The duty was shared by two individuals taking shifts. The reciters have food and drinks by their side so they need not leave. I saw nothing because I didn’t realize I could. Mourners and tourists alike are encouraged to visit. Later, I discovered another foreigner attended the pregame. 

Ketut failed to mention any of this. I barely saw him. He spent most of the time at a small food stall chilling with his homies. Perhaps, he was miffed at my donation hesitation, but I couldn’t be sure. He did say, "if you want walk around, it ok" which I deduced might’ve been his way of telling me to witness the preparation ritual. Dunno. I should’ve asked more questions rather than waiting for a parade. Can you blame me, though? How was I to know it’s perfectly acceptable to show up at someone’s home and gawk at the body of a dead relative? Hey guys, Felix looks great. Still dead, huh? Just kidding. Are there snacks?

So what the blazes did I do? Well, I spent the afternoon hanging at my own food stall about two hundred feet down the street from the deceased…waiting…waiting…waiting…Bueller?…and waiting…However, I didn’t suffer in vain. The day would prove rewarding after all. I chatted with the natives, worked on my Indonesian, and goofed around with local children. The kids (or should I say mini prima donnas) had a field day posing for the camera.



I saw things. Mildly unsettling things. Bali is tropical. Balmy. People get warm. Children swim. A group of kids went for a dip in an irrigation/drainage ditch along the road next to a rice field. Didn’t see a cremation, but I did witness nude boys splash around in, what I can only assume, was exceedingly filthy water. Highlights? Well, one kid took a prolonged aqua squat which could only mean one thing: Poopy time. At first, I was unsure of his intention, but the telltale grimace was all the verification I needed. Another boy saw a worthy challenge—he fired a coconut in the young defecator’s vicinity, attempting, I surmised, to sink the turd submarine as it emerged. 

I also witnessed a grown man strip down naked and take a bath in the same ditch (no sign of the “submarine” at that point). I found intense fascination in this drama-less microcosm of island life as it played out before me. Hard to explain (to myself even), much less articulate, why watching a man bathing in “Shit Ditch” would compel my attention. Maybe it was the mundanity of it. No residents batted an eyelash. Just life. Their life…where running water is a luxury. Is it Western condescension to feel pity, to wonder if there isn’t a better way? It’s not a cultural judgment, but a realization I think. Just from a health, wellness, and sanitation perspective, I was riddled with ambivalence. I wonder how the villagers would’ve reacted if I’d cannonballed naked into the ditch and left a submarine of my own. I suppose, in the end, you either let it get you down or giggle. I chose the latter.

When I wasn’t watching “Fecal Battleship”, I was sitting at the food stall sipping coffee and eating chicken ball soup (Bakso Ayam). Have I mentioned Balinese coffee? One word: tar. Very strong tar. Perfect for restarting someone's heart. And I loved it…loved it.

Eventually, I took a stroll to the cemetery to see the cremation paraphernalia. I learned then it was a double barbecue—two villagers from higher caste families. Those with the means are usually torched within a month of death, and it’s not uncommon for bodies to reside in the home. The exact date depends on local customs and traditions. It involves the counsel of a wise man from the village consulting a book and calendar to determine the most favorable burial day. The less fortunate are buried in the ground for three to five years and cremated only as part of a larger ceremony with the corpses of other lower-income families, a literal “dead pooling” of money.




Then, I sat. And waited. And chatted. And waited. Then, I waited some more. Even the locals weren’t sure about the holdup. And the singing and prayer recital via loudspeaker droned on. One villager suggested the family felt extra guilt and needed to compensate with an added dose of mournful passion.

I was tired, hungry, and irritable. Patience is a virtue and, I’m ashamed to admit, I ran out. This was unfortunate and stupid, but I felt I should leave out of respect. When thoughts like, C’mon already, let’s torch these sumbitches, intrude, I believe it best to bow out. Cremations are meant to be joyous celebrations, and I couldn’t square this with my mood. I figure I’d catch the next ceremony on the flip-flop, but (double sigh) never got around to it. I’m a big dum dum face.