THE JOURNEY – Ashes to ashes

09 Aug 2001

There was a commotion on the Sanur beach; everyone was thronging to the shore. Someone who has spent twenty years going to Rimini might think: it’ll be nothing, a dead crab. But someone else was dead: Karya Palebon, aged 95. The funeral was taking place there, in front of the Bali sea. Relations and male friends wore T-shirts with a picture of Karya and the women wore bright, festive clothing. The skyscraper-litter transporting the remains of the deceased was on the sand and her children and grandchildren were preparing an ingenious funeral pyre with logs of green wood. Remnants of Karya’s life were brought to the foot of this structure: clothing, books, a few rupees, everything she would need in the afterlife where she now presumably waited.

Incredulous tourists crowded round, as the ceremony took place happily and efficiently. The flames blazed and the pyre began to consume what was left of Karya. Her eldest son shouldered the responsibility of directing the flames towards the heart of the casket. Shreds of something no-one cared to identify floated through the air. Like a conjurer, only the wrong way around, the man thrust four spears into the container, from one side to the other, to show that nothing remained, but there was no illusion: nothing really did remain but ashes, to be gathered and scattered over the Indian ocean.

One woman, swamped in folds of white lace, was crying. The others were busy at the portable stoves, with pans and bowls. In the shade of the large trees a votive picnic was being prepared. Using gestures rather than his stilted English, one of the men wearing a memorial T-shirt invited me to take part. I sat cross-legged on the sand and accepted gratefully. This was an opportunity to taste a Balinese menu that cannot easily be found in the island’s restaurants, which are more inclined to serve “Lenten pizza” (without mozzarella) and Mexican beans. The courses passed from hand to hand in small bowls, beginning with “bebek betutu”, smoked duck pre-cooked in the oven, served with rice. Then a traditional Indonesian dish, “nasi goreng”, fried rice with all sorts of things in it: chicken, vegetables, beef, pork. A row of rice crackers on the side guarded a fried egg. During a short interlude (or prelude to the dessert, I am not sure which) “lawar” appeared: this is a leaf like a bed, on which rest slices of papaya, grated coconut, green beans, spices and an assortment of mouthfuls of all sorts of meat.
The plat de résistance was still to come, and was welcomed with a round of applause: “sate”, a mixture of kebabs. Two of Karya’s relatives carried it on their shoulders. About a hundred beaks were arranged on a kind of litter with an animal’s face and inside a volcano was bubbling. When they put it down, I looked over the edge: ashes. The ashes were cooking the kebabs and scattering into the air. Ashes to ashes. Wayan, Karya’s firstborn son (all firstborn sons are called Wayan in Bali, but you can more familiarly call them Putu), read my thoughts and smiled. Shaking his head he dispelled my fear that we were eating pork cooked over his mother’s ashes. I grabbed a skewer, dipped it in the spicy peanut sauce and sunk my teeth into it: excellent. A lizard crawled onto my knee. Two days previously I had read how, at a child’s funeral, a giant lizard sitting on the tombstone had immediately been interpreted as the child’s reincarnation by the mother, and taken home and kept – with the permission of the priests – “until the spirit was released”. People came from many villages to stroke it with their lottery tickets. To avoid misunderstandings I brushed my guest away. Wayan went on smiling; somewhere on the ocean, his mother’s ashes had found peace in oblivion.

Gabriele Romagnoli is a leading Italian journalist, writer and broadcaster. His latest book, Louisiana Blues, has been published in June.

Photo: Sanur Beach, Bali (

Adapted by Ailsa Wood

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