FUNERALS AND DEATH IN BALI
In Bali, funerals are important and expensive events whose size and expense depends on the caste, wealth and prestige of the deceased. They are festive occasions—that celebrate the release of the soul to god—with huge processions of flower-decked people and floats. Funerals can be very expensive, There are many stories about people being chased by debt collectors and having their motorcycle taken away because they took out big loans for a funeral and couldn’t pay them back.
There is mystical quality to the way death is perceived in Bali. The Blair brothers befriended a 116-year old Balinese artist named Gusti Nyoman Lempad. He died on the day the sun rose closest to Gunung Agung volcano. "He called his large family around him, and when they were patiently assembled he sat up, said a few words, smiled, and died." [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York]
Ngaben—Balinese funeral cremation—aims cleansing the soul of the deceased so that it will be unified with the God. Ngaben is a very significant, month-long prepared ceremony. In Bali, each cremation take all the village members to work together to help the family administering the whole processes of the ceremony, and therefore such a ceremony often turns into a very big happening. The body is put in big chest and carried by 15-50 healthy men from the house through to the grave yard. The chests take several shapes such as Lembu (Balinese ox), Gajah Mina (a big fish with elephant head), or Singa Mangaraja (a lion with two wings). Those imitated animals are believed as God’s holy animals. At the grave yard, the dead body and the chest is set on fire. This process symbolizes the return of the souls to the holy state to the God. Ngaben procession ended with the ash of dead body thrown to the nearby seawaters. [Source: Bali A Traveler’s Companion and Bali Tourism Information Book 2008]
Balinese Hinduism involves three rituals after a person has died, the cremation being the second. After death the body is ceremoniously washed. The government used to require that the body be burned within two weeks but often families wait much longer than that. The funerals is followed by a feast. After the corpse has been burnt, mourners collect the ashes of bones of the deceased which are offered to the sea in a final ritual. It is believed that once the soul has been purified by fire which represents earth, it must be purified by water so it may return to heaven to begin the process of reincarnation. According to tradition, the deceased returns to human life in the form of the next born family member after these rituals. White is a color mourning.
Miguel Covarrubias wrote: "Strange as it seems, it is in their cremation ceremonies that the Balinese have their greatest fun. A cremation is an occasion for gaiety and not for mourning, since it represents the accomplishment of their most sacred duty: the ceremonial burning of the corpses of the dead to liberate their souls so that they can thus attain the higher worlds and be free for reincarnation into better beings"
See Hinduism, World Religions
Balinese Beliefs About Reincarnation
Existence, according Balinese Hinduism, is a continuous cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth until one’s soul is purified and thus unified with the God. You won’t be surprised to hear a Balinese says “My nephew is my grand mother reborn” and et cetera. Rebirth or incarnation, called Punarbhawa/Samsara, is one of the five chief principles of Hinduism, aiming to get Moksa the perfection and holiness of the soul so that it can be accepted in the realm of the God. [Source: Bali A Traveler’s Companion and Bali Tourism Information Book 2008 ^^]
Balinese believe Moksa can be reached through four corridors, Brahmacari, Grehasta, Wanaprehasta, and Bhiksuka. Those steps have their own purposes. Brahmacari is the period for gaining knowledge as much as one can, then continued by Grehasta; period for building a good marriage without leaving knowledge, Wanaprehasta is the period for starting to leave the secular world, and finally Bhiksuka is time when one has succeed in leaving secular world and using his knowledge to help others. Before someone reaches the fourth step, s/he won’t be able to reach the perfection and holiness, and instead would go through the first step again. ^^
Balinese people believe in the paternal system. When a woman delivers a baby, most Balinese believe that it is the reincarnation of the male ancestral. Some also believe that the baby can be from an reincarnation of the female line or even an animal. Because when an animal is sacrificed for a ritual ceremony, its soul is uplifted to be a human’s. ^^
The Balinese and Hindus believe cremation liberates the soul of the dead, allowing it to journey to heaven to rejoin the Hindu cycle of reincarnation. The body is often cremated in a pyre set off the road and the ashes are carried to a beach and released in the sea. If someone dies in an accident it is often believed that his spirit is trapped between the physical and spiritual worlds. A special ceremony is held to bring the spirit home. Afterward relatives are expected to help the deceased’s soul through afterlife to rebirth in a younger member of the family. Dereliction of these duties may cause the restless ancestor to bring illness to the family.
Unlike Hinduism in India, the bodies are not cremated immediately after death. They are typically buried in a funeral and then placed in a temple facing the sea. The corpses are then retrieved three days before the cremation, the date of which is decided upon by the community. During these three days it is common for the bodies to return to their former homes. Priests are never buried in this way, but remain in their homes after death until their families have gathered enough money to perform a cremation. [Source: Jennifer Smith, Daily Mail, August 18, 2013]
The Balinese of Trunyan put the dead body under a tree after a mourning ceremony. It' is not buried or burned, not even covered. The amazing fact is, the body will rot, but does not smell. The place where the dead are put is near a village on Lake Kintamani, the largest lake in Bali.
Balinese Funeral Procession
In a Balinese funeral procession the body is carried to the cremation ground in a multi-leveled tower made with bamboo, paper, silk, flowers and other colorful objects. It represents the Hindu universe and is carried on the shoulders of a group of men. The number of tiers varies with the caste of the deceased. Only the rich and members of high castes can afford to pay for tall towers. Once the family of a very rich man at the last minute lopped three meters off a tower because they worried that such an ostentatious display might offend the gods.
The tower is often in the shape of a turtle entwined among snakes—symbolizing the foundation of the world. At some Balinese funerals the body is placed inside a large effigy of a bull with a large red-tipped penis. The bull is carried on a frame of bamboo poles carried by laughing and shouting young men. They rock the bull back and forth while a crowd gathers around singing and cheering. For the Balinese a funeral and cremation is a joyous event celebrating the reincarnation of a person to higher station. [Source: "Man on Earth" by John Reader, Perennial Libraries, Harper and Row]
During funerals on Bali an excited crowd often fights over possession of the wrapped corpse and shakes the tower and runs around in circles to the accompaniment of gamelan music played by musicians that run behind the tower. The Balinese believe this disorients the corpse so it won't return to its former house and haunt the relatives for not performing all the prescribed rituals. Tourists are often welcomed at this stage of funeral because it is believed they help confuse and disorient the soul of the deceased. The procession ends when the body is transferred to a funeral sarcophagus at the cremation grounds and the sarcophagus, funeral tower and body are set afire.
Description of Balinese Procession and Cremation
Roy Stevenson wrote on goworldtravel.com: “A body wrapped in a white shroud is brought out of the wooden slatted village leader’s house, carried shoulder high along a dirt pathway and placed in a black coffin. White flower petals thrown by mourners descend on the coffin as it is borne to a 30-foot-high (9.1 meters) pagoda-like tower standing nearby on the road. Passed carefully from hand to hand, the coffin is lifted up the tower by young men of the village. The coffin ascends the tower in stages, as some of the wiry and muscular men climb past it to the next level to receive it again. Eventually it is placed into a dark recess halfway up the glittering red and gold decorated tower. [Source: Roy Stevenson, goworldtravel.com \+\]
“The mourning family looks solemn, but members occasionally smile and wave to their friends. It’s not the typical weeping, grief-stricken scene experienced at a western funeral. The family walks in front of the tower as it’s slowly pushed and pulled along the hot dusty road by over a dozen strong young men. We head through the small ramshackle village, down the slight grade toward the cremation grounds a half-mile away.\+\
“Resting on four enormous black rubber tires, each the size of a man, the tower is so tall it was necessary to remove the overhead power lines. Hundreds of people follow, some silent, some talking and some singing. I join the throng, slowly walking with the crowd. A huge fierce-looking black bull or water buffalo in which the coffin is ultimately deposited for cremation has to be created by a specialized craftsman. \+\
“We near the cremation area, a large uneven grassy area with a patchwork of small stands of tall palm trees and bright green jungle foliage. The tower grinds to a halt and the coffin is transferred respectfully into the large matching hole in the back of a seven-foot (2.1 meter) tall fierce-looking black and gold painted bull. The bull is wheeled onto the unlit funeral pyre consisting of thick criss-crossed palm tree trunks. Brief speeches are made, followed by chants. Then, what looks like a cross between a hot-air balloon air heater and a World War II flame-thrower is fired up and aimed at the bull. A 12-foot (3.6 meter) jet of red and yellow flame spurts out. “It gets up to 2,000 degrees”, a Balinese man tells me, as we stand back from the rapidly expanding heat wave, watching the palm logs catch fire. The crowd stands motionless, mesmerized, watching, as the flame turns blue with the heat, the bull starting to blister and burn. \+\
“Elsewhere around the burial grounds families spread out among the final resting places of their loved ones, cleaning up around the simple graves. They lay down brightly colored blankets and straw mats, unpacking food and drink. They place small woven baskets of flowers as offerings on the gravesites of their deceased, and then pray to them. That done, they sit around, laughing, talking and eating, while the children run around, chasing and hiding from each other. Balinese cremations are not a sad event, rather they are a remembrance of friends and family who are no longer here, and even display joy that the loved ones are in a better place. Hours later, as the shadows grow long and dark, the villagers slowly start to disappear, leaving a few people watching the red hot ashes, what is left of the bull and the body.” \+\
Mass Cremation in Bali
Jennifer Smith wrote in the Daily Mail, “A mass cremation was held in the Balinese town of Ubud in which more than 60 corpses were burned. The ceremony, well known as Ngaben, was shared by mourners who could not afford to perform the ritual by themselves. Ngaben, which means 'turn to ash', is considered to be the last and most important rite in the cycle of a Balinese Hindu life. [Source: Jennifer Smith, Daily Mail, August 18, 2013]
The corpses are placed in individual coffins and then in sarcophagi made of paper and wood which are burned at the end of a long procession. Traditionally the procession is not walked in a straight line so as to confuse bad spirits and keep them away from the bodies The ritual involves holy songs and offerings, and is considered a joyous occasion for mourners who are releasing their loved ones from the restrictions of worldly life.
Typically, mourners try not to cry during these ceremonies for fear that they will halt the deceased in their journey to the afterlife. But some communities believe the shedding of a tear towards the end of the ritual can mean the spirit has completed its journey. When the fire has burned out, the ashes of bones are separated from the rest of the residue and placed in white and yellow cloth with flowers. Once the ashes have been collected the 'initial purification' is complete, and the soul is ready for the third stage of ritual which is known as the 'final purification'. During this ceremony, which usually occurs 12 days after cremation, the ashes that were collected are taken to the sea or a nearby river.
BUTENET reported: “Every 5 years, it's time for Cremations. People are buried temporarily until this time, but they must be cremated "as otherwise the path to reincarnation is cut off". It's possible to have a separate cremation without burial, without waiting, if your family is willing to pay the substantial cost. The primary organization in Bali is the Banjar, which is like a parish - size about 300-600 people, with 3 temples. Banjars are organized into Desas , villages. The largest organization within Bali is the kingdom; the kings are no longer recognized, but the kingdoms still exist, and are part of the postal addresses. There's a cremation for each Desa. Each Banjar has 3 temples; the Desa uses one of them for community cremations. In our week in the Ubud area, we saw preparations for 5 different cremations, for as many as 93 people. Of these, the most impressive took place in the center of Ubud. It included a royal cremation, of a cousin (or a sister-in-law? - the Balinese that we asked weren't sure of the correct English) of the former King of the Ubud area. [Source: BUTENET]
“During the week before cremation, the members of the Banjar bring gifts to the families of the deceased. In turn, the families feed everybody in the Banjar, and entertain them with a gamelan band. Meanwhile, in the front yard of a house on Ubud's main street, they're building a bull. which will be the funeral pyre for the royal. It's built from bamboo, then covered by velvet and decorated with tinsel and spangles: After the street is washed, the bull and tower are picked up and carried to the cremation site. Holy water is spritzed on the carriers. The course is uneven, with much shaking, to shake off any evil spirits that may be hanging around. [Ibid]
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015