It’s fine day for a cremation: dry and still. We pick up the parade as it comes from the dead man’s house–a procession bearing along the cremation tower on a litter, to the music of gongs and cymbals, commotion and laughter. Next to a river they set down the tower, an open pavilion decorated with glittering gold paper. Inside is the body, shrouded in a woven mat. Some men unwrap the corpse, without any noticeable reverence, I can see the two bare feet; they’re ivory white and shriveled. Then the fire is lit.
In Bali, this is just one more occasion. The dead man’s body needs to return to the elements, in order to release his soul and let it move on to the next incarnation. So two men drag over a tank of compressed gas, to get the job done faster. They shoot the gas into the flames through long wands, and the fire roars, leaping up the tower’s posts to the bravely ornamented roof. Inside, the man’s thigh is sizzling like a rib roast. Am I the only one staring?
Other people are starting to eat lunch. Food vendors have set up shop under a banyan tree. A woman passes through the crowd with the tray of kretek clove cigarettes. A dozen gamblers are squatting in a circle playing dominoes.
I look around. There is another pale-faced family here: a mom and dad and two girls. I take a photo of the glowing corpse. It’s so weird–this cross-cultural fixation. What must the Balinese think of us, Sam?
Just imagine. What if the busloads of nosy Indonesians kept coming into our neighborhoods asking, “Do you know where we can find a good Methodist burial?” What if these people started to show up at our weddings and graduations and Fourth of July picnics, our shopping malls and Bar Mitzvahs and backyard barbecues–just to stand around and watch? Wouldn’t that take some getting used to?
We’d be flattered, of course (as the British were when Princess Diana’s funeral turned into a global spectacle and a tourism bonanza). But what if these busloads of nosy Indonesians were famously rich and adored our artistic impulses and began buying up our best dance troupes and symphonies and theater companies? What if they started paying Americans big money to make beautiful handicrafts for them– or even ordinary handicrafts? Wouldn’t that change who we were, and how we saw ourselves?