A Balinese Cremation
For the Hindu Balinese, a cremation is a very meaningful aspect of community tradition to help the soul of the deceased break its earthly ties. Friend Gail and I happened upon a funeral procession in Ubud; we followed this colorful group to the graveyard on Monkey Forest Road.
In his book, The Balinese, J. Stephen Lansing explains: “When someone dies in a Balinese village, a drum is beaten to summon representatives from every family in the neighborhood [the banar] . . . [they come] to help wash the corpse and prepare it for burial. . . . For immediately after death, the soul is thought to hover above the body in a state of bewilderment” (32).
Lansing continues: “Surprisingly (to a Westerner like me), the atmosphere is not solemn; instead there is a bustling crowd of people, talking informally with one another as they go about the business of preparing the body. There are more overt signs of sadness at the death of a child; but at the death of an older person, I had the impression that everyone was more eager to be seen doing their part to help than mourning for the deceased. Death is an occasion when neighbors try to behave like relatives, helping the family of the deceased through a difficult and potentially dangerous time” (32-33).
Look at the faces:
We followed the procession to the Hindu temple and cemetery in Monkey Forest.
“Banjar members may contribute money, food, or clothing, help to dig the grave, and escort the family with the body to the cemetery.” And that procession to the cemetery is what Gail and I saw. I was surprised that we Westerners were invited in to see the ritual. At other Hindu temple rituals, Westerners must at least be in formal Balinese garb; some rituals are for only Balinese Hindus. But for the cremation, some Westerners walked right up to the funeral pyre.
Men remove the casket from the second cremation tower and carry it over to the bull cremation tower.
We were told that the deceased was from a rich family and that is why she could be buried quickly especially since this was an auspicious day for a cremation.
“After a final bath of holy water, any wounds on the body are covered with tamarind paste so that they will be healed in there person’s next life. Ornaments are placed on the corpse, such as mirrors over the eyes, which are thought to confer clear sight and personal beauty in the next life. A white shroud is prepared, inscribed with an image of the human body labeled to indicate the correspondence of the inner world of the self to the outer world of the cosmos. The parts of the body are marked with letters indicating the dasabayu (ten wind-directions), the destination of different aspects of the self at the moment of cremation, when its elements will be dissolved back into the outer world” (33).
Lansing notes: “The cost of cremation varies from expensive to ruinous, and may force a family to go into debt, even to the extent of selling their farm land. All of these expenses are borne by the family of the deceased, not the banjar. The preparation of cremation towers is especially expensive. Various types of cremation towers are appropriate to different castes or sub-castes. Most banjars include members from different castes, and one of the major sources of social friction [which we never saw] in the village is the idea that differences in caste represent differences in merit, or one’s deserved place in society. The idea of rank, which is implicit in the very idea of a caste system, can often be ignored in people’s daily relationships. But the building of a cremation tower and the procession of the family to the burning grounds forces each family to make a very public statement about how they define their position in the social hierarchy “(33).
In recent years, “there have been numerous efforts by progressive Balinese to reduce the costs of cremation, and the social tensions they so often exacerbate, either by encouraging whole banjars to carry our their cremations on the same date, and so share the costs of the ritual, [which is usually what happens in Ubud], or by reducing the amount of time and money spent on these rituals. There is a temptation for ambitious families to carry out cremations with higher-ranking caste symbolism than their neighbors regard as appropriate. The result is said to be that the cremation will not achieve the desired effect of launching the deceased on a successful journey to the next life. Instead, the deceased becomes an angry ghost, unable to take leave of the world, who is likely to take revenge on the family members whose pride caused their predicament. Alternatively, families who lack the necessary financial resources may be tempted to postpone the cremation ritual indefinitely, which can lead to strong feelings of guilt and failure (and fear of revenge from impatient ghosts awaiting cremation),” says J. Stephen Lansing (33).
“After the cremation tower containing the body has burnt to ashes, a few fragments of the bone and ash are gathered and placed inside a coconut wrapped in a yellow cloth, which is ceremoniously carried to the beach, where prayers are offered by a high priest. The contents of the coconut, representing the five elements from which the body was formed, are poured into the ocean where they are thought to dissolve completely into the primal elements of earth, air, water, fire, and ether” (34).
The cremation is a religious rite and social tradition for the Balinese.
Lansing goes on to describe another ritual sequence called nyekah or memukur that is carried out by one or more high priests on behalf of the family much later. This involves even more expense and possible flaunting of high social state.
However, what Gail and I saw was a community coming together to ease the passage of a neighbor. They were there to help the family (and their community expected their participation); besides they had fun. We saw the cremation as a colorful, interesting, and unifying community ritual.
We hope you come upon such interesting cultural traditions when you are in Bali.
Aloha & Sanpai jumpa, Renée