What Do The Balinese Do With The Departed?

Be careful what questions you ask Lynda because the next thing you know, you’ll be taking part in a Balinese cremation ceremony.

After a few days of driving around Bali, I realised that I haven’t seen any cemeteries. Nor anything that could pass as such. Excited by the big realisation, I asked my Balinese friends about the customs regarding their dead. The short answer was easy: We burn them. Of course. What else could be done? It’s a small island.

There’s also the long answer, though.
Cremation ceremonies, Ngaben, are very expensive. For this reason, they happen only once in a while in the form of a mass ceremony.

Awesome frenzy of the ritual! The sarcophagus comes in many forms. Photo: Lynda Purnama
Awesome frenzy of the ritual! The sarcophagus comes in many forms. Photo: Lynda Purnama

Unless, you’re a very rich person who can afford to spend 30,000,000 IDR (more than $2,000) to release your spirit from your body, you’re gonna have to wait for your turn.

Most people are not this well-off. So, when you die, it might be a good few years for your body to be cremated. Mind you, it might also be also only a week or two. All depends on the funds. Funds and the appropriate time, as the day of the ceremony is always consulted with a specialist. (Sorry! Neither Wiki nor my Balinese friends know how this person is called. Too many customs, always so much too learn, they say.)

Richly adorned Lembu is helping your transition.
Richly adorned Lembu is helping your transition.

The bodies awaiting their cremation day are buried in areas especially designated for this. It’s like a temporary cemetery, only it’s not temporary as there’s always bodies waiting for a Ngaben.

I was showered with the above information during a rafting trip, and Mita showed me such a “cemetery” on our way back. If it wasn’t for her kind finger, I wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from the surrounding area.

I thought that the subject was closed.
After all, I learned what was important and the girls were happy that they could enlighten a bule*.

A couple of weeks later, I was sitting having lunch with Lynda when she said, You’re going to a cremation ceremony on Sunday. I’m gonna prepare a traditional Balinese outfit for you.

My fork froze halfway to my mouth. Really?

We got to Lynda’s family’s house early on Sunday morning. Already quite a few people gathered for the Ngaben. When we entered the premises, Lynda’s lovely aunt took us straight to one of the rooms where we put the traditional Balinese outfits on. A few minutes later, I looked in the mirror, surprised. The clothes actually fit me… It’s my pregnancy clothes, Lynda laughed.

The sounds, the noise, the tempo!
When the procession to the burning grounds started, the street was swarming with people. It was packed. I’ve got no sense of estimating the crowd but there must have been some 500 people, plus the onlookers! The musicians started playing their gongs, cymbals, bells and whatever else, and the sarcophagus started moving. The pace of music was very quick, to the point of making a beautiful cacophony, creating a stuffy, claustrophobic but elevated atmosphere.

Gotta love this trans music.
Gotta love this trans music.

Once I focused on the trippy sounds, I could easily distinguish the rhythm, tempo and individual instruments. Suddenly, I realised that the “cacophony” was nothing else but my phony ears.

Confusing the spirits & keeping them away from the dead
Among the loud music, we moved down the street with the freaky buffalo, called Lembu, dancing in the midst of people. This is done to confuse evil spirits and keep them away from the deceased. The men carrying the sarcophagus were actually putting a lot of effort into making the buffalo dance. It was frantic, impatient and hopeful. As in, I hoped they weren’t gonna ram into me.

Hard at work.
Hard at work. Photo: Lynda Purnama

We arrived at a clearing near the burial temple and the music stopped playing. The scorching sun sent everyone in the search of a piece of shadow with most people converging under magnificent banyan trees.Ngaben Bali

Ready to reincarnate?
This is the most important part, the essence and the climax of Ngaben. The burning of the sarcophagus containing the body of the deceased is necessary to free the spirit from the body and enable reincarnation.

IMG-20150825-WA0004
Speechless. Photo: Lynda Purnama

The funeral pyres were maintained with the highest degree of professionalism. It’s very impressive. The fire is big and it takes a skill not to burn the whole village, I suppose.

That hot Sunday, we freed five spirits trapped in the human flesh puppets. I saw real bodies burning for the first time in my life without the filter of a TV screen.

It was real.

And that’s it. I probably made up what I didn’t know. If you have comments on my shortcomings or you’d like to share some accurate info about the ceremony, please, feel free.

*Bule = tourist

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