So far this month, I have been invited to three weddings and a funeral. Well, technically, that’s three wedding receptions and one post-funeral celebration.
The first wedding reception was for Helena’s uncle. In the somewhat typical fashion of last minute wedding invitations here, Helena asked me at work on the day of the wedding if I’d like to come with her to the reception that evening. Having never been to a Gorontalese wedding, I seized the opportunity. I went home after work and quickly changed into the most festive top I had in my closet – a maroon three-quarters length number festooned with numerous shiny black plastic pieces, pink pearls and swirly embroidered patterns. I was ready.
The wedding reception was held at the family’s house. At first, the bride and groom were hidden in a small room of the house while some sort of ceremony was being performed. While waiting for their grand entrance, we sat outside on plastic chairs that had been set up in rows and drank a melon syrup drink that we had been given at the door. I also pocketed my wedding favor – a miniature drum. Finally, the bride and groom emerged from the ceremony room and made their way towards an elaborately decorated stage that featured a special chair just for them. Traditional wedding attire for Indonesian brides and grooms is pretty spectacular. Both were draped in layers of colorful, ornate fabric and the bride was wearing an enormous (and heavy-looking) headpiece. No wonder she just sits on her special chair all night. Mingling with that thing on your head would be next to impossible and you could probably poke someone’s eye out with all the spiky leaves on the top. Actually, the groom had a headpiece too, but it didn’t look nearly as cumbersome as the bride’s.
Some rather long-winded and undecipherable speeches and recitations were given in Indonesian and Arabic and then it was announced that it was time to eat. Now, at American weddings, people are seated at assigned tables and are either called up to the buffet by table number or are served the meal at their seats. Here, it couldn’t be more different. After the announcement was made that the food was ready, there was a mad rush to the buffet tables. People could have been trampled. It was out of control. Helena and I hung back for a minute and then cautiously approached the least crowded buffet table. Once we had loaded up our plates with rice, chicken and gado-gado (a tasty vegetable dish with peanut sauce, tofu and boiled eggs), we went back to our seats where we ate with our plates on our laps. That’s right. There were no tables. Everyone was dressed in their finest and eating messy, saucy foods on their laps.
Besides the missing tables, the wedding also lacked alcohol and dancing. I understand this is a Muslim country, but a wedding reception without alcohol and dancing doesn’t really seem like much of a reception to me. To be fair, there was live music. A band and a singer had been hired to perform some popular Indonesian songs, but no one danced to these. Amusingly, the MC of the wedding took great pleasure in announcing my presence there. “It is a great honor to have a white foreigner here. She is maybe from America or the Netherlands,” he reportedly said at the beginning of the evening, as translated by Helena. After the meal he disbelievingly announced, “The white foreigner is still with us!” Towards the end, he even invited me to sing a song for everybody, but I politely declined. After about two hours of sitting and eating, we shook hands with the bride and groom, posed for a few formal photos and then went home. It was a very short reception compared to the gala affairs at home that end with dancing until four o’clock in the morning or bonfires on the beach.
The second wedding reception was for a lecturer in the English department at UNG who I’m not entirely sure I had ever met before. The events were the same as the first wedding: people sat in rows of chairs facing an elaborate stage where the couple sat in their special chair, blessings were given, excerpts were read from the Koran, and then it was time to eat. The only difference this time was that the reception was not held at a home, but at a very fancy reception hall.
The third wedding, for Ibu Noni’s brother, will be next weekend. Apparently, the six weeks after Ramadan is prime wedding season.
On a more somber note, the mother of one of my new Indonesian acquaintances passed away Wednesday afternoon after battling a long illness. On Friday afternoon, I was invited to go to the memorial service. I was instructed to wear white and if I didn’t have that then blue, as white and blue are the traditional funeral colors. Dressed head to toe in dark blue with a turquoise cloth flower pinned to my shirt, I was expecting a serious event and was prepared to see people crying and in various states of mourning. Instead, the speakers were making jokes (“You can’t read the Koran on Facebook!”) and the guests were laughing and carrying on whispered conversations with each other the entire time. Puzzled, I asked my friend Tia about this. She informed me that Ramang’s mother had already been buried on Wednesday.
Muslims are buried on the same day they die and everything happens rather quickly. Muslims pray five times a day, and the dead should be buried within the space of two calls to prayer. The time to mourn publicly and be sad is on the day of the death and the burial. Afterwards, Muslims traditionally hold memorial services for their departed 7, 20, 40 and 100 days after the death. The purpose of these ceremonies is to entertain the family and friends of the deceased and help them feel less sad. Even though Ramang’s mother had passed away only two days ago, the purpose of this event was clearly to entertain the mourners.
I paused to reflect on the way things are done in America – funeral and burial in the same day and then nothing. Maybe this was better? Maybe it helps with the mourning process to have friends and family gather at specified intervals to remember the deceased in a formal but light-hearted way. I shared this new insight with my counterpart who basically said, yeah, sometimes it’s nice but many people consider these ceremonies to be a burden. I can see how that might be true. If, for example, you know 3 people who die in any given year, that’s at least 15 afternoons you would have to spend at memorial services. So, I guess it does add up, but I still like the idea of formally gathering friends and family to remember loved ones who have passed away.