When I was a teen, my grandmother made me six cups of tea one day in succession and after realising that the traffic on the coffee table was her doing, she crumpled to the floor in tears. She knew her brain was failing and yet, the irony was, she couldn't do anything about it.
Ketut, my friend, visited her next door neighbour, her brother-in-law, this morning. Like every day, regular like clock-work, coffee and a fried egg on top of noodles, was delivered with a gentle knock on the side door and put down beside the bed, at seven am. This day, things seemed a little different. Nyoman lay there straight as a die. Arms stiff next to his torso as though he was about to jump from a plane or go down a super slide at the water park. His eyes open and watery and lost in pain.
She called for her husband and they put him in the back of a rickety old van and took him off to hospital in the hope that they could breathe some life into him. Alas it was Nyoman's last fried egg. He died in hospital that morning and left a family stunned and forever poor without his wages.
In Bali, it is imperative to cremate a body as soon as possible and on a day that is auspicious for the Gods favour, so that the spirit can pass over and then come back up the ladder of caste success, for a chance at the Big Kahuna; total enlightenment and riches beyond ones' wildest dreams. There is no freezer room. No morgue. There is only moth balls and mummification. Mysterious smells and mice.
There is a strange vigil held over the body in the home until it can be burned. Breakfast is received by the dead as normal. The only available orifice that has not been wrapped in tight whites, is the face and this stays thinly covered by a muslin cloth, uncovered for the morning smells of coffee and a lit cigarette that is left for the deceased, can be smoked by the spirit, just like any other day. At some point the spirit will want to know if it is dead or not and may visit as a ghostly smell, presence, light or anything that looks out of the ordinary.
The vigil is held overnight and the family and friends take turns to watch over the body, sitting in a circle drinking tuak and arak (palm wine and distilled ethanol) playing cards and laughing and joking with stories of better days when he was alive and running amok. All the while this is going on, another meeting is taking place above, in the rafters.
'Honcho,' the head of the rat committee, is plotting the Big Feast, when all the drunkards fall over and go to sleep. A hundred rats gather and organise a discovery party every thirty minutes to visit the deceased, tip-toeing down the window frames and onto the body. Gede snorts and wakes himself up, just in time to swat one of the rats away from the open faced mummy staring at the ceiling. Its like this until Cremation Day.
The preparation for this event is epic and volunteers from the neighbourhood join to blow torch the body in the open casket and bell ring under meditation. Ten pigs are slaughtered and roasted in honour. Not to feast on, but for offerings for the ever fearful Gods, that say whether a spirit can pass over. The more offerings the better the chance. I have been to a cremation when the wind changed and I was engulfed in a smokey haze of body dust, which I could not help but imbibe. It is a weird sensation to know that you have just vacuumed a part of someone's body into your own being. I was horrified at first, but as the years float by, I see that the Balinese culture is about celebration and about becoming better through death, about understanding and accepting that when your time is nigh, take it as a chance to leave, to become better, to come back with another stripe on the shoulder of respect and honour. This is a tribal island of mystery, wonderment and a unique place to come to terms with the whole idea of death and consequences of behaviour in the moment that is our life. Be it one or many. It is something to celebrate in the now.