Balinese Cremation (Ngaben) – A Long Journey of a Soul Returning to God

A New Journey to the Afterlife

Balinese believe that the human body is only a temporary shell, which is impure and has no significance at all. It is only a vessel or a container of the soul made of five elements of cosmology: earth, air, fire, water and space. After the body’s death, the soul will find a new home in another form (based on the principles of Samsara – reincarnation). Still, before that, the soul must go through a few more phases which are determined by their karma when they were lived. They can go to hell “Neraka”, heaven “Suarga” or even become one with God “Moksa”. There are many steps a soul must go through to reach Moksa, and the cremation rites is one of them. 

Unlike the death ritual in many countries and cultures, Balinese celebrate the cremation day with pride and joyfulness as they believe their family or friend is finally able to return to God. One thing that you should understand, death rites and cremation rites are two different things in Bali. A death ceremony can be done very simply with simpler offerings and not much fuss and preparation. Some families will need to bury their dead family member in a cemetery temporarily until they get a chance to cremate the deceased body. The cremation ceremony is considered as one of the most expensive rites in Bali; even the medium-large ceremony will need a hundred million Rupiahs and months of preparation before the big day. However, it is pretty common in Bali, when somebody died from a regular/low-income family they will ask the wealthier family that has a schedule for a cremation to be included or join in the ceremony. And when a member of the royal family, high caste or holy person died the cremation will be a celebration which will draw many people to join in the rite, along with other thousands of people from around the island.

When the right day for doing cremation has been picked carefully by the spiritual leader or advisor (not all days are suitable for cremation), all the series of preparations are set. What surprising is there is no exact to-do list, which instructs whom to do things or in charge of doing a specific job. All will be done with a Balinese cooperative style, even though this will be a massive event with thousands of people will come and take part in it. The ceremony will be started by building a temporary shelter for all the guests to do all the work. The men are responsible for doing some heavy work while the women are making offerings. 

A unique casket (known as “Lembu”) in animal forms like bull, cow, lions, deer or elephants must be made from scratch, from a solid tree trunk. The animal figure chosen for the casket has to be four legs as it symbolises the four spiritual siblings known as “Kanda Empat”. A bull casket is used for men and a cow for women. The bull is known as the vehicle of Shiva God (The God of death and destruction), so it is considered very prestigious. Another instrument that has to be built is a cremation tower (known as “Wadah” or “Bade”). This tower has many parts attached to it which symbolised the Balinese universe. The turtle and dragon at the base of the tower represent the underworld; above it, there is a world of man represented by leafy forest and mountains painting. At the very top, there is a pagoda-like structure called Meru, which means heaven. This tower can be very tall; the more important or wealthier the person who died, the taller the tower will be. It can be up between 10 to 20 meters high.

From Dusk till Dawn

On the big day, all the crowds will gather around the village in the early morning. A group of traditional orchestras will start to perform and play beautiful symphonies using gamelan, bamboo xylophone, and other instruments. The dancers are also getting ready to perform a sacred dance. Everyone is dressed in a traditional costume based on their rule. Many photographers and tourists from around the world are also welcome to join in the rite. 

The ceremony will be started by carrying up the body into the tower (wadah) which has been wrapped in a white cloth sealed with sacred mantras. Another group of people will carry the empty special casket in animal form (lembu) to the cemetery as the place to cremate the body. Once the casket has arrived, a line of women with offerings on their head will follow the crowd along with other mourn family or relatives. 

The next procession will be the stretching of a long white cloth known as “Lancingan” from one end of the tower down across the sea of people to the coffin carrying the body. After the coffin has been laid down on the special pavilion under white sheet roof, a family member will open it through the back part using a special sacred dagger. Deceased bodies or bones will be placed inside the lembu (new casket) together with some clothes, offerings and accessories. The family will take another final closer look, and when everything is ready, the fire will be ignited led by the high priest using a torch that has been blessed. When the fire has gone out, the family will collect the ash and bone. These remaining will be wrapped in a white cloth or a container made from a yellow coconut. Meanwhile, the priest will start to chant a sacred mantra and ring the bell to help release the soul to heaven.

After the priest finishes his last prayer, the family will carry the ashes on their head to send it to the sea. But if the sea is too far, a nearby river can be an alternative. By submitting the ashes to sea/ river, it believes the body has returned to the universe. This whole process can take up a full day, from morning until evening.

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