Cremation Ceremony in Bali

What is the Cremation Ritual in Bali?

Ngaben (or Pitra Yadyna, Pelebon) is the Hindu cremation ceremony practiced in Bali, Indonesia. After completing the Ngaben Ritual, the spirit or Atman is freed from the bonds of the material world and is able to unite with Ida Sang Hyang Widhi. This action also represents the family’s understanding that their departed loved one will eventually leave them.

The Balinese view the physical body as a transient shell made of earth, air, fire, water, and space that is ultimately meaningless but serves as a container for the immortal soul. When the body dies, the soul moves on to another body (based on the principles of Samsara – reincarnation).

However, there are a few more stages that the soul must pass through before that can happen, and those stages are based on the person’s karma from their time spent on Earth. They have the option of going to “Neraka” (hell), “Surga” (heaven), or “Moksa” (oneness with God). The ritual of cremation is one of many that a soul must complete on its way to Moksa.

patulangan cremation

Cremation in Bali – A Deeply Spiritual Ritual to Prepare the Soul For Its Afterlife Journey

In stark contrast to the solemnity often associated with death in other cultures, the Balinese celebrate the day of a loved one’s cremation with a sense of pride and even joy, as they see it as a final step before the deceased’s return to God.

In the immediate aftermath of death, a temporary burial takes place with minimal ritual and preparation before the body is taken for cremation. Sometimes families must use a cemetery as a temporary burial site for a loved one who has passed away, either because they lack the resources to pay for a proper ceremony or because they must wait for the appropriate day (hari baik) in the Balinese calendar.

Because of the expense, time, and effort involved in preparing for and carrying out the cremation ceremony, it is not performed on any arbitrary day. It is normal practice for ordinary or low-income families to approach a wealthy family that has already scheduled a cremation and ask if they may be included or join in the ceremony.

The cremation of a member of the royal family, a higher caste, or a priest is a festive occasion that may attract thousands of people from all over the island.

Preparing for the Cremation

The day for the cremation has to be selected carefully by the Hindu priest (as not all days are suitable for cremation). The series of preparations needed are done cooperatively as this can become a huge  event drawing in thousands of people that will come and take part in it depending on the social status of the deceased.

The ceremony will require a temporary shelter for all the guests to do all the work. The men are responsible for doing some heavy work, while the women will be making the offerings.

A unique casket or sarcophagus (known as “Patulangan or  Palinggihan”) is built in the shape of an animal such as a bull, cow, lion, deer, or elephant, depending on the gender, caste and status of the deceased (varna). It must be made from scratch so to speak and will be used to cremate the body. Hindus believe that Patulangan is used by the spirits of the dead as a vehicle to heaven. The animal figure chosen must have four legs as it symbolises the four spiritual siblings known as “Kanda Empat”. A bull casket are used for men, while a cow is for women. The bull for example is known as the vehicle of the God Shiva (The God of death and destruction), is considered very prestigious and used for male Brahmanas (Holy priests).

The villagers need to construct a cremation tower (known as “Wadah” or “Bade”). This tower (pagoda-style structure) has several architectural elements that symbolize the Balinese universe. The turtle and dragon at the base of the tower represent the underworld; above it will be the world of man is depicted by a painting of leafy forests and mountains. At the very top, another pagoda-like structure called Meru, will represent heaven. It is possible for the tower to be as tall as 10 or 20 meters, depending on the deceased’s wealth and social standing.

From Dusk till Dawn: What happens on the day of a Cremation

Early that morning of the big day, the villagers will begin to gather in preparation. There will be traditional dance performances as well as performances by a gamelan (traditional orchestra) performing traditional music on bamboo xylophones, gongs, and other gamelan instruments. It is expected that everyone will wear traditional garb. Visitors are invited to join in the festivities and accompany the soul on the journey to the cremation location.

A white cloth will be draped over the corpse, and sacred mantras will be chanted over it as it is carried up into the tower, where the ritual will begin. The empty sarcophagus (Patulangan) will be transported to the cremation area by a separate group of persons.


For the procession from the village to the cremation site, a long white cloth known as “lancingan” will be placed from one end of the tower down to the people carrying the structure. A line of women with offerings on their head will follow the crowd along with other mourning relatives. A member of the family will use a sacred dagger to open the coffin’s back after it has been placed on the white-clothed pavilion at the cremation location. The body or bones will be placed then inside the sarcophagus together with some clothes, offerings and accessories. When the time comes, the high priest will use a blessed fire torch to start the pyre.


cremation fire

Once the fire has gone out, the family will collect the ashes and remaining bones. These will be wrapped in a white cloth or a container made from a yellow coconut. In the meanwhile, the priest will ring a bell and chant a sacred mantra to send the soul on its way. When the priest is done with his last chant, the family will pack the ashes in coconut shells and bring them to the nearest sea. If the ocean is too far away, though, a river may suffice. The Balinese believe that when the ashes are scattered into the ocean, the soul is once again returned to the universe. It’s possible to spend a whole day doing this.