Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ngaben: your thoughts on death and grieving

I woke up and immediately noticed the LEDs were out on my laptop. Damn, I'd fallen asleep during a lightening storm and left the machine unplugged. It was still dark but a glance at my indiglo watchface  warned me just before it squeaked to life. As I reluctantly roused myself I was afraid I'd have to wake the neighbor to drive me, but as dawn softly lit the usual haze it felt warm and I headed down to the village alone, on foot.

Today we honored Pak Putu Sumarjaya in his Bali Hindu cremation ceremony (ngaben). He was Made Terip's first cousin and a respected and liked musician. They traveled abroad together to teach and headed the village gamelan together until 2002. He supported my teacher through last year's grievous times but succumbed rapidly in a struggle with stomach cancer. He was one of a few experienced musicians to volunteer to teach the women's gamelan -- one of my memories of him was watching him, great eyeglasses glinting, carry on the cengceng part in Pak Terip's new composition just a couple months ago. He was not much over 60.

His wife Ibu Laheni was run ragged with grief, supported by son and daughter, through the ceremony. I gave her my meager gift of 54,000 Indonesian Rupiah in a small envelope I'd bought the day before for the occasion -- six times nine, the yin and yang numbers. My teacher had advised me to dispense with the usual gift of two kilos of sugar for cash to help with hospital and cremation expenses. She said only that Pak Putu was dead, thanked me, and directed me to the refreshments.

The family compound was compact in the middle of the village such that the angklung was packed onto a stoop like sardines. A few of us squatted or sat on filthy concrete steps and the alleyway. The weather stayed perfect, though, clearing at noon just enough to dry the rain-soaked road, but not to burn the pallbearers.

Every time, the hours-long ceremonies afford me plenty of time to reflect on death and mourning. This time was more personal -- the widow had been especially kind to me in rehearsal, in casual meetings on the road, and at last month's birthday ceremony for her grandson. As I waited with over a hundred others for the bulk of mourners to proceed from the family compound to the street, as I gazed on the bamboo platform on which Pak Putu's coffin would be carried, and as I watched his remains and offerings go up in smoke at the cremation grounds, I felt the familiar fear weigh down my body. Every Balinese knows with a certainty I can only imagine that their death will be honored this way. While I live, I will mourn every Balinese I love, when they pass away, in a ceremony much like this. And that will, more likely than not, include my teacher.

The dead require nothing, but the grief of the living requires this much labor from this many people. Examining my teacher's collection of beautifully copied lelambatan melodies yesterday, I hovered in uncertainty that all these pieces were in living memory. Pak Terip, paging through them in their broken stitching,  admitted here was a tricky one he hadn't gotten yet. Are the dead to be remembered like this, lovingly collected records with an organic syntax known only to a diminishing number who knew them well?

In the comments please honor someone you loved or respected who has passed away, or for whose future passing you are already emotionally preparing yourself. You don't have to include a name. What I'm looking for is your piece of the truth.


  1. This is timely for me. A member of one of my faith communities died this weekend, and I was not aware that she was dying. I felt somewhat blindsided. She was a very warm, cheering person who gave much to her community, so my first (useful) thought was how could I be of service here? A. reminded me that in the days before Facebook, people kept community with the grieving by bringing casseroles, and this serves the grieving in two ways—first, they don't have to cook, which allows them time to grieve, but second, they are required to collect and return the casserole dishes, which gives them something else to think about and reminds them to connect with community members who care for them. It seems like such a prosaic and American social ritual, but like all good social rituals it serves a useful purpose.

    The occasion caused me to reach out to a community member that I have had a falling out with and haven't spoken to in over a year, because she is grieving and she is also the person I know who is most likely to know how I can be helpful. Maybe grief makes small things smaller, big things bigger.

    And speaking of smaller griefs, yesterday was my mother's birthday and I called her only to find out her dog had just died.

    1. Thanks, Kerrick. That's a beautiful tradition.

      Re: your mother's dog, awww.