Balinesian Last Rights

When I was young, all last rights were conducted very much like that of my Granddad Otwell.  He died at home and his body was taken to the mortuary immediately.  His body was embalmed and prepared for viewing.  Then it was taken back to his home for the wake.

A death wreath was placed on the front door and black edged notices of the services were placed in the town businesses.  The body was never left alone.  Two men sat near him for the two nights before the church services. This was called a wake.  Walls of flowers surrounded the casket at the service and later were placed on the gravesite.

When I was in Japan during the military occupation after WWI1, I was told that their dead were not buried but cremated.  This was hard for me to comprehend and it seemed barbaric.

In 1990, Jean and I flew to Bali where we were to catch a Garuda Airlines flight to Timor Island.  There we would board a catamaran for a cruise of the Spice Islands and return to Bali.  We arrived three days before the flight so that we might explore the beauty and culture of Bali.

We were to pick up our tickets for the flight to Timor at the front desk of the hotel.  The desk clerk knew nothing of our tickets.  We were given our key and identification form and led to our bungalow.  On the walk over I noticed that on the form our name was spelled Parshall instead of Pershall. This did not bother me since the name is pronounced Parshall in British countries.

We spent the first day enjoying the beautiful grounds around the hotel and the music of the gamalon orchestras and the dancers.  We then ventured out into the surrounding residential area.  We immediately could recognize the influence of the Hindu religion.  On the walkway to the front door of the homes would be one or more small containers of fresh flowers placed there to keep away evil spirits from the dwelling.

Each of the houses was a part of a compound with walls encompassing the side and back yards.  Within the compound a place was reserved for bodies of dead family members.

Some of the bodies are held there for some time awaiting cremation. They often waited for a  wealthy family member to agree to include the body with its cremation ceremony.

We went to the front desk so often that the clerks got to know us. On our last full day there, one of the clerks told us of an elaborate cremation to occur that afternoon and that outsiders were welcome.

Viewing a cremation sounded creepy to us.  We got to thinking that the clerk was so excited about it that it might be something we shouldn’t miss.  We also could see more of the countryside and the interesting people. We hired a car and driver and took off.  The driver could speak only a little English but he was of help for us.

It was a beautiful sunny day for our one and a half hour trip through beautiful countryside and villages.  The driver explained that the cremation ceremonies fall into three price categories – $2,000, $5,000 and $10,000 and that the one we were going to view would be of the $10,000 category.  He added that this ceremony would include a poor relative of the man whose family was paying for the cremation ceremony.

We parked in the vicinity of the family compound and walked with a crowd of colorfully dressed people to the compound entrance. The gathering was orderly but quietly joyous much like people in the States going to a Broadway musical.  We passed several ice cream carts and other vendors.

Near the entrance were two elaborately decorated towers, one was probably twenty-five feet tall and the other was slightly smaller.  Near them were two large, black, wooden carved bulls. We were told that the bulls were caskets holding the bodies of the corpses.

Indonesia photo

The towers were unbelievably beautiful and looked like something we had seen in the Rose Bowl Parade.  They were decorated in gold with highlights of other colors and colorful silk scarves hanging from the roof.  Under the oriental type roof was a chamber open on all four sides where priests would ride in the parade.  Also on the towers were pictures of the departed men. The towers and bulls were on platforms made of crisscrossed bamboo so that they could be carried to the cremation grounds.

About thirty minutes after we arrived, forty or so ladies in identical costumes exited from the large door of the compound in single file.  Each of them held a silver bowl on her head filled with fresh food to be sacrificed to the gods.  The ladies marched into the street and followed a band of drummers providing a muted beat to lead the parade.

About fifty men picked up each of the platforms bearing the towers and joined the march with their heads protruding from the openings in the crisscrossed bamboo.  Each of he bulls were likewise picked up and supported on about thirty men’s shoulders and they joined the parade.  All of the carriers were dressed in black shirts and dark skirts and white headbands.  Over their skirts were shorter skirts with a design of two inch black and white squares.  Material with black and white squares was prominent through Bali covering poles and various other objects.  Hindus use this design to signify the good and evil of man.

Indonesia photo 2

Interspersed between these platforms were many colorfully costumed marching groups bearing various objects to be burned with the body as a sacrifice to their gods.  The widow was carried in a large chair and was holding possessions also to be sacrificed.

It must have been three fourths of a mile when a right turn was necessary to enter the cremation grounds. The bearers of the tower and bull platforms made two complete circular maneuvers in the road before entering the grounds.  This was done in order to confuse the evil spirits so that they would not enter the bodies of the two corpses.

The towers were lowered to the ground and a tall stairway that had been carried in the procession was placed against the taller tower.  The bull containing the principal corpse was taken up the stairs and placed in the open chamber where two priests were standing. The priests chanted and performed acts that I did not understand.  Then there was a shocker.  They produced two roosters and ceremoniously pulled off their heads and threw the bloody heads and bodies out into the crowd.  Luckily we were far enough away so that no blood was splashed on us.

Then the bull was carried back down the stairs to a knoll where a wooden platform had been erected and decorated.  There was a roof over the platform and the floor was raised so that objects to be sacrificed could be placed under and around it. The body was carefully removed from the bull and arranged on the platform.  The priests performed additional rituals and poured oil over the corpse.  A flame was ignited.

The flame immediately covered the body.  The pageantry appeared to be complete. We found our driver and returned to our hotel.  I did not understand the rituals I had observed but I shall never forget the excitement of the cremation ceremony we observed.

Cremation of loved ones is now an acceptable practice by Christians in the United States, but we have never been invited to observe one of them.

We thanked the clerk at the front desk for sending us to the cremation.  He told us that there still were no airline tickets for the Pershalls.

The next morning we went to the airport hoping that our tickets would be at the Garuda gate.  The airline personnel knew nothing of our tickets and apparently did not have a passenger list.  We were devastated.  We joined the many stand-by passengers waiting in the small area.  We sat and prayed.  There was only one flight a week to Timor from Bali and we would probably miss our Spice Island trip if we not allowed on this flight.

Soon, a representative from our hotel arrived looking for Mr. and Mrs. James Pershall.  He bowed and handed us our tickets. They had been at the hotel desk all along but we were registered as Parshall, not Parshall,

The plane was ready to depart about an hour later than it was scheduled.  We carried our carry-on luggage about two blocks to the plane. We took off but noticed that there were many empty seats on the plane.  The wait-listed people were left behind.

We departed Bali thrilled that the ticket mix-up had occurred.  Otherwise, we would not have experienced one of the most exciting extravaganzas of our lives.  God has always been good to us.  Could He have had something to do with the ticket mix-up?

Jim Pershall

February 2012