Monday, April 18, 2011

A Funeral Path Less Traveled

When my mom passed away, some of us--my sisters, her sisters--went to Bali, Indonesia to have a memorial service for her and spread her ashes.  My mom loved Bali.  She was an artist--a painter, a sculptor, a carver--and Bali is a country of artists. Entire villages are devoted to mastering a specific art--raised to their craft from childhood.  I was amazed by our cultural differences. Things that would never cross my mind could be different were different in Bali.

There are only four names there: Wayan, Made (Mah-day),  Nyoman and Ketut.  Doesn't matter if you're a girl or a boy they give the names in order of birth, and if there is a fifth child they cycle back to Wayan. People are often distinguished by where they live or work or by specific characteristics.

Balinese babies never touch the ground before a special ceremony at  six months old.  Can you imagine, sleepy mamas, your baby never touching the ground for six months, even on a blanket? But then, they also live in large family groups so there are many hands available to hold little bundles of baby.

In Bali, rice grows in multiple colors and they eat it for almost every meal.  They don't just mound it on a plate or cover it with sauce, either.  For one meal my rice was boiled to a paste, strained through a cloth bag, cut into chunks and stir fried.  it had almost a meaty texture that was incredible.  Things like that, seeing something mundane transformed, throws open the doors of possibilities inside my head.  And the doors burst open in Bali.

I learned to haggle there, too.  It's expected and even respected to bargain and I actually drove a hard one--at least compared with my sisters  (Remember, dear sister, the girl running up the stairs, smugly waving your money in the air?).  I was able to acquire some beautiful, original artwork.  My mom would have been proud (even if Pat wasn't entirely keen for it). 

Which brings me back to the reason we were in Bali in the first place, and the most striking cultural difference of my experience. To the Balinese, a life ended should be a life celebrated, not mourned.  At my mom's memorial service they beat drums.  They danced.  They celebrated my mom's life, with graceful movements and smiles.   Afterward, when it was time for each of us to speak, our throats were thick with tears just as we'd predicted they would be.  To our Balinese hosts this was horrifying.  Why were we crying?  Had they done something wrong.  Something to offend us?  We reassured them they had done everything exactly right, but they never did look quite convinced.

Since then I've mused about times I've felt guilty for not crying when I thought I should.   Certain reactions are expected of certain circumstances in certain cultures.  Think of the women who were expected to rend their flesh or  fling themselves onto a funeral pyre to appropriately express their mourning of a loved one.  To us, that's extreme, but so are tears at a funeral to the Balinese, and is that wrong?

What would it be like to be raised to truly celebrate a life after it has passed?  The ability to rejoice in what was wonderful about a lost loved one, without being maudlin, seems such a state of grace to me--one I can't achieve even now.

Way back when the techtonic plates shifted, or two roads diverged in a yellow wood, the Balinese chose the funeral path less traveled.  And I, for one, am envious.

 All photos courtesy of Lalove


  1. I am very sorry about your mom passing. This post was wonderful and full of interesting information. It is hard to remember that not everyone lives that same as we do.

    Thank you for such an awesome post

  2. I think that you (conveniently) forgot that it was on those same steps that you were had by the sari lady, and that's what spurred you to become such a hard bargainer... And remember the umbrella lady who charged us all quadruple to grab an umbrella after it began raining ;)

    I'd love to plan a follow-up celebration.

  3. Thanks, Erica! :)

    Lalove, you're right, I did forget (conveniently)! Good spurring she provided me. Remember how guilty I felt, though, after buying that woven mat at the Sacred Monkey Forest shop? I wanted to go back and give her more money. Bwa ha about the umbrella seller--I couldn't even begrudge her! ;D

    I'd totally dig a repeat--there's always Thailand in the fall to consider...? :)

  4. I guess there is a learning curve for everything, and bargaining took some getting used to. Next time we will know that a beautiful handmade piece deserves a little extra, and a sari from someone hounding us up 100+ steps a little less (although I give her credit for being so fit).

    Of course, if we head to Thailand I'm sure we will have to start from scratch as they probably have their own tricks and wily ways of relieving tourists of their cash ;)

  5. I, too, am sorry to learn that your mom had passed away...but what a lovely thing she left you: to go learn so much in Bali! My mom's funeral last year was nothing but stress and sadness. I think trekking over to Bali would have been tons more fun.

  6. This was interesting and meaningful. Thanks


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