09/16/2014 11:49 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

Being Present

It was an auspicious day to be cremated. Villagers were packing in Ida Dayu's courtyard preparing her body so that her spirit could journey on to the next incarnation.

I had just arrived in Bali when the manager of the guesthouse I was staying at asked if I would need anything in the next several hours because she wanted to attend the cremation. She looked a little surprised that instead of wanting to rest after the two days it takes to get to Bali from the U.S., I asked if I could tag along. But it didn't seem to bother Kadek that I didn't know Ida Dayu nor anyone who knew her. What did seem to bother her was what I happened to be wearing: a comfy sleeveless black t-shirt dress which was not at all appropriate for a Balinese funeral.

Kadek disappeared and returned with a traditional Balinese blouse and a colorful sarong and sash that she was able to borrow from neighbors on a moment's notice. Off went the black dress, on went the much too see through long sleeve white blouse, followed by a beautiful red and gold sarong which Kadek yanked around me as tightly as possible followed by a purple sash which she tied even tighter. I finally understood why so many Balinese wear flip flops and wasn't at all sure of what I was going to do if the cremation required me to sit down.

As it turned out, I spent the next five hours standing.

Kadek and I arrived with other neighbors. Those bearing offerings went straight to a table to set them down. Some joined those putting the finishing touches on the bamboo pier that Ida Dayu would be burned on. Others darted to the few remaining spots of shade in the courtyard, and a few, all men, snuck out to gamble, a pre-ritual ritual.

A priest was chanting. He placed small mirrors on Ida Dayu's eyes to give her clear vision in the next life. He affixed tamarind paste to her wounds to help them heal and placed a ruby colored stone in her mouth to ensure that she would always be articulate. He laid metal on her teeth so that her next set would be strong, and positioned lotus flowers around the body.

Hours passed and the courtyard buzzed along. People chatted, catching up on the latest gossip. Children ran around making games of small stones, occasionally shouting with youthful delight. Roosters and dogs, oblivious to any of the rituals, crowed and barked as they would on any other day. In a world where life is one of a series of incarnations, there wasn't the overwhelming despair and awkward silence that characterizes Western funerals. In this community, death is a natural part of the family compound that teems with life.

At one point, by some silent cue, women reached into their bras and the men into small sachets tied around their waists -- sarongs don't have pockets -- and pulled out bills of tiny denominations which they tucked in and around Ida Dayu's body. Kadek had disappeared, but having just come from an ATM machine, five miles and a civilization away from the village, I had some money with me in the incongruous daypack I grabbed before Kadek and I set out, but it was all large denominations. I puzzled about whether it was more appropriate to send a large amount of money up in flames or not donate at all. Or, even if I had very small bills, whether I should participate in this rather intimate ceremony at all, having only "met" Ida Dayu after her she had died.

Somebody noticed me standing awkwardly and stuck a small bill in my hand, motioning to me to come along.

"Is it really ok?" I asked in Indonesian. The woman looked at me, bewildered. "Harus!" she all but bellowed. Not "It's ok. You can join in if you want" but "harus" meaning "you must!" She continued, "You must be present, and we will be present for you."

"You must be present."

In some cultures, wearing local dress and participating in local ceremonies is not appreciated. And even in Bali, there are some ceremonies and some temple areas that are off-limits to outsiders. But in many Balinese communities as in many communities elsewhere, the opposite is true: If in one way or another you are going to interact with a community, even if only passing through for a few days, then actually be there, fully (and appropriately) participating, fully present as part of the community.