Until I was 20, I’d never seen a dead body. Then, one day in Bali I went with two women I’d met at the hotel to see a cremation in a village some miles away. I suspect we did it as much for its anecdotal value back home as we did for any cultural pretensions. Jude, in particular, was uneasy and snapping everyone’s head off. “It’s this fucking humidity,” she said.
When we arrived at the village, the driver told us to wait and bought himself a warm Coke from a street stall. When I looked for him again, he was gone. We sat in the shade of a veranda but the dense, wet air enveloped us in smells so pervasive that I felt I could touch them; rotting fruit, incense and strange cooking smells carried on smoke. Suddenly our driver’s pink shirt appeared again and he pointed to a house across the dirt street. “You come and see body now.”
Jude, still seated, looked up frowning through her sunglasses. “We can’t go in there, can we? I mean, it’s a bit rude isn’t it?” Karen smiled at me and pulled a face. Our driver was earnest and a little impatient. He ignored Jude’s question. “You come and bring camera. More important for family’s pride, you know?” He paused. “Now you get it, right?” Jude looked at Karen and me. “OK, “ she said, “but I’m not taking any bloody photos. I can’t believe this shit.”
Inside the dead man’s house we entered a small passage that seemed dark as our eyes adjusted to the new light. There were people in front of us and behind, mostly tourists. I noticed that the driver had gone again. The body lay before us raised to about chest height and clothed in white. It was an old man’s face that was smooth and mottled. Cross-legged beside him was a lady who seemed to be praying as she broke water-dipped flower petals over the corpse. The air was thick with incense and the faint smell of death. Jude lifted her camera and quickly took a shot. “Well, I might as well,” she said. “Everyone else is.”
Gradually we moved on an emerged again into the heavy sunlight. Later, we followed the funeral procession on foot to the graveyard. The body was carried on a large and intricately carved wooden frame draped in flowers. It took several men to carry it while about fifty of us walked behind sweating and mumbling.
Eventually we came to the burial site, an uneven field of mounds where bare-chested men stacked green cans of petrol next to where the pyre had come to rest. Then two of the men began digging. “Now what’s going on?” I said. “I thought this was supposed to be a cremation.”
A serious Dutch girl standing next to me answered, “They dig up the poor people who can’t afford to be burned. They put them with the rich man so that they can go to heaven as smoke.”
“You’re kidding,” muttered Jude. “I’m not staying to watch this.” We walked back to the car and neither Karen nor I said anything. The driver saw us coming and hurried from the direction of the village throwing some food scrap behind him and spitting. Jude turned on us in the taxi, “Well, it’s a bit much, isn’t it? Don’t you think?”
“Shit, yeah,” said Karen and then we all looked out of the window. The driver seemed quite cheerful now for some reason. “You make people very happy because you go to funeral. I think people very important, yes?”
Jude said, “Yeah. And I think oxygen’s important but I don’t go around talking about it.”
I felt a headache coming on and stared at a small temple peaking over the top of the jungle. I could hear Jude haggling with the driver over the cost of the taxi ride. “Oh, come on!” she was exclaiming. “That’s a bit too much.”