The gathered mourners move away from the body when the metal pipe is placed next to the head of the deceased. A large gas bottle is on the pipe’s other end. So far, the atmosphere at the cemetery was rather casual. Now, it becomes more serious. One of the men lights the newspapers inserted in the burner. The fire starts burning with enormous power. The relatives share their first tears. The body turns into ashes. After a while no one cries anymore. The spirit has been set free and may return in form of a reincarnation. So there is no reason to be sad.
„You will be able to get really close to the body and take photos!”, said Cathy, my new acquaintance from the village, right after she invited me to her cousin’s cremation ceremony. Really? It was hard to believe, that I could do this without offending anyone. But the next day, I found out, that Cathy was right.
The cemetery did not look like a cemetery. Nor like a temple. It had the appeal of a community center, where the villagers gathered to exchange gossip and spend a pleasant Tuesday afternoon.
It wasn’t one of those festive funerals, that you sometimes hear about while on Bali, when a member of the royal family or another important person passes away. The not too wealthy inhabitants of Nusa Anturan, a coastal village and part of the Lovina area, waited for that day until it was possible to have multiple cremations during one day and share the costs. Which basically means, until enough people died…
One of the funerals was just coming to an end when I arrived. At first I felt intimidated. I took one photo and observed people’s reactions. I didn’t see any protest in their eyes. Instead, they were all returning my smile. I passed by women dressed in colorful clothes, who occupied the stairs of the cemetery’s canopied space. They looked at me surprised, but friendly.
Right behind them a small gamelan orchestra has located itself. Harmonious gongs, drums and flutes created a special accompaniment for the ceremony.
I took a seat near the musicians, encouraged by an elderly woman in purple robes.
“You can take photos”, she told me and did the international sign of bending a finger in front of your eye. The next minute one of the musicians turned towards me, the one who played the drum.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“From Poland. Polandia. Did you know someone who will be buried today?”
“Yes. My student. I am a teacher in the local school.”
“He must have been quite young then”, I wonder, “what happened, how did he die?”
“He went trekking and fell down from a cliff. He was in a coma for a week, but never woke up…”
„Take photos, don’t worry. They want you to take photos.”, He said and turned back to continue playing his drum.
After hearing this so many times, I finally let go of the fear of offending someone and started snapping in every direction, because everything seemed fascinating. The colorful offerings made of food, mostly sweets, and an occasional cup of coffee. The mysterious old man sitting on a platform and giving out blessings.
As usual in this kind of situation, the ones mostly interested in my doings were the kids. Somehow they always found a way to get in my frame. So I offered them a photo shoot, which they were very enthusiastic about. A few photos were followed by looking at the results on the lcd screen. Another few clicks. Watching photos with the kids again. After twenty minutes of that game I realized, that I need to put it to an end. Otherwise I would miss out on all the important things that were about to happen. Eventually, a promise to continue the shoot after the funeral released me from the kids for a while. I started focusing on the ceremonies again.
Suddenly, there was a stir at the cemetery. A procession with another coffin entered the grounds. The sarcophagus was decorated yellow, which meant that the deceased was single. If he was married, it would have been black.
I searched the look of the drummer from the gamelan. He nodded in confirmation. It was the student.
The porters circled the pyre three times and placed the coffin next to it. They opened it and confidently transferred the body, wrapped in white cloth.
The mourners approached one by one and placed offerings on the dead man’s body. Compositions of sweets and flowers. In little woven baskets or larger vessels.
Then they started throwing coins and banknotes. One, two, sometimes five thousand rupees. Rather small amounts.
During the whole time, a priest dressed in white was praying over the deceased. When the offerings came to an end, a girl approached him. She was carrying a silver plate with little clay vessels on it, each containing a different liquid.
The priest poured each liquid on the body and smashed the vessel against a stone. A few minutes earlier he delegated the task of finding the stone to one of the young boys in the crowd. The stone had to have a perfect size. When the boy brought the stone and found the priest’s approval, there was a hint of pride in his eyes.
Now the body is already burning for a while. For the whole time I can see the man’s head, which becomes more and more transparent every minute. Finally, there is no shape to be recognized in the flames. I get shivers when I think about the times, when the widow had to join the deceased on the pyre… If he was a rich man and owned slaves, those poor people often shared the same terrible fade. Luckily, that was a long time ago.
Soon, the men start putting out the fire. Nobody is crying now. On contrary, the merry atmosphere returns and the crowd bursts into laughter repeatedly.
The family picks the metal coins from the ashes and the silver powder is then placed in a cone-shaped basket. They hold the basket over an earthen bowl and pour water from above. The water runs down together with the ashes, ultimately separating them from all the other remains.
The family is just about to head to the sea shore, where they will say their last prayers on the black sands of the Lovina beach, before they let the waves carry away the ashes.