Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Name Post: On Reincarnation, Death and Sadness

Okay, this might be a bit of a downer.

I am currently in my last week of Bahasa Indonesia class. As our class has gotten friendlier with each other, we’ve also gotten more comfortable spending class time engrossed in long conversations about life in Bali and trying to justify this by throwing in the occasional random noun in Indonesian.

Today, however, when our teacher came in, she was a bit frazzled. She told us a staff member of the library had a cousin who was working for an American cruise ship in Indonesia and had just committed suicide on the boat. “Suicide?” She said, “Is that what it’s called?” We all nodded, and realized she wasn’t sure how to translate it because there’s no word for suicide in Indonesian or Balinese. Instead, deaths that are somehow “unnatural” are all called “wrong deaths.” Not to get too Chinua Achebe here, but it felt terrible to be in the position of confirming, as westerners, “Yes. Suicide. That’s what we call it.” And then, trying to understand it she turned to us and asked, “Why? Why did he do it?”

It felt strange that our teacher was now asking us the questions. None of us knew this staff member’s cousin, and none of our Indonesian language was good enough to try and explain the reasons a person might commit suicide, particularly when there wasn’t even a word for suicide. We were suddenly put in the position of trying to justify this western phenomenon.

I’ve joked before that Balinese people are always happy, and it’s sort of true. If you’re unhappy there is a direct reason for it—whether this reason is, like Nita’s, being scared to ride your motorbike alone to a party, or, like Gusti’s, having evil spirits that you must be cleansed from. A priest, perhaps unlike a therapist, will tell you the direct cause and provide you with direct instructions for cleansing yourself of it. Unhappiness here is not a natural state to be in. The western idea that people could be depressed because of the wiring of their brain or simply a general malaise is something that is really difficult to explain.

Although none of us could offer any reasons, our teacher jumped to her own conclusion and said, “Maybe it’s because he was on the cruise ship and far from his family for too long. That’s not good. When people are away from their families, maybe their life is very easy but their mind is not easy.” Sara, the other Watson fellow in my class, and I exchanged looks. Let’s hope it was more than that.

Because this man committed suicide, he will not have good karma and will probably be reincarnated as an animal rather than a human. This also means his name won’t be passed on to a relative.

After a day at Gusti and Tika’s house last week, I learned some more about how exactly the baby’s name is chosen at the three month ceremony. Although I’ve previously mentioned the system with the alphabet and the candles, what I hadn’t realized, is that at this point it’s already been narrowed down to a few names. The priest at the three month ceremony will not only suggest names based on the Balinese calendar, but also reveal what ancestor the baby is a reincarnation of. The name that the parents choose should echo this relative in some way. By the time the ceremony rolls around, the parents might already have a guess at what relative the baby is a reincarnation of (usually it’s someone who has recently died and who hasn’t already been reborn in the shape of somebody else). Parents can shorten the process by starting to think of names that mirror the names of their ancestors before the ceremony and then suggesting them to the priest. Once a short list is formed, then candles will be lit above each of these pre-approved names.

A Balinese priest at a wedding I attended last week in Celuk.

Because these relatives will always be reborn (if they’ve had a natural death), dying isn’t a big deal here. I talked about the joyous celebration of the cremation a few weeks ago and the ways in which people’s memories are taken care. But sometimes it is still shocking to me how well people move on. My friend Oka, who has been raising his two year-old grandson since his son died last year had tourists coming for mask making lessons the day after his son died and did not turn them away. The other day, I was talking to a driver I met about his family and he told me he had two kids: “Putu and Komang.” These names alone indicated to me that, like Wayan, he had had a child in between them who had died. He confirmed this and told me that his son had been a really sick toddler and died at four years old. “I’m really sorry.” I told him, unsure of how to respond to a stranger offering me this information. “Tidak apa apa” he told me, which is a common expression meaning, “no problem.”

I know that the driver didn’t actually mean that it was “no problem” that his four year-old son died. I know it was a way of saying, “That’s life” or “There’s nothing you can do about it”, or “It was hard at first but I’ve moved on,” but still, that kind of acceptance, that reaction, is something I continually marvel at here. I could not ever imagine a parent in the United States having that reaction, and I don’t think it’s because Balinese people love their kids any less.

I think that this acceptance might be more of a necessity in a society that has a much higher mortality rate than the United States. I wonder how much of this attitude has to do with the fact that people need to have beliefs that will allow them to move on with their lives in a place where unexpected loss is, unfortunately, a relatively common occurrence.

I don’t think I can say that naming alone acts as consolation for the loss of a loved one, but I do think that there is immense satisfaction in the belief that someone’s spirit will live on in the body and name of a relative. I don’t think that it’s a terribly different concept from a parent in the United States naming their child after a deceased relative. Isn’t there the same (perhaps unacknowledged) hope that it’s not just a name being passed on, but a spirit somehow? The idea that someone is carrying on a name seems more important than the name itself—don’t people want Robert Jr. to take after Robert in some way?

If you look at reincarnation as a process of naming, it is a belief that transcends cultures, even those that have remarkably different attitudes towards death. And it seems that for most Balinese people, the belief that one day their spirit will be alive again is, rather miraculously, reason enough to be happy.

[In case this post has put you in a melancholic mode, hit play to hear the song above. It's been my happy song for the last few weeks and has quickly risen to being the most played on my new computer. These listening sessions may also involve some dancing in my room when no one's at my homestay but I'm not fully owning up to that yet. Shout out to the legendary Thomas Edward Buffalo Powers (speaking of fantastic names) for sending it along to me. Enjoy.]


  1. Nell this was so interesting. I know that when we named Frank after deceased relatives not so much in the hopes that he would take after them as to honor or mark their (still) presence. I wonder, say, if babies born who are thought to perhaps be reincarnations of deceased family or friends are expected to have certain traits or if they simply share a history.

  2. Maura, thanks so much for writing. I was curious to hear what you thought especially because I know the story of Frank's name. You pose such an interesting question and maybe I was too hasty in assuming that babies who are named after a relative are expected to share certain traits. I think the distinction you point out is really important and also might be one American/Balinese difference. In Bali, it's as if these kids/babies are thought to really BE the person they're reincarnated as. So, as someone explained to me yesterday, if a ten year old is riding a motorbike, it's no big deal to his parents because he's not actually a kid, he's the older person who he's reincarnated from. It makes parenting really interesting to watch. (I'm going to write more on that later!)