Balinese Cremations

>The accessibility of Bali’s traditional culture sets it apart as a travel destination. Visitors are not only welcomed but encouraged to attend temple festivals. Balinese dance-drama, perhaps the island’s most famous attribute, remains an authentic part of Balinese religious and social life yet is still performed with enthusiasm for tourists. Of all the cultural events available to travelers the greatest spectacle is a cremation. Although it may seem strange to westerners, Balinese cremations are very celebratory and public occasions. Think more wake than funeral and prepare to be engaged by the “more the merrier” attitude of the local participants.
A cremation day is characterized more by fun and laughter than mourning – they are liberating the soul of the departed, freeing them to reincarnate. According to Bali’s unique form of Hinduism, the body is only a shell; the vessel of the soul. After death the soul lingers near the body until being liberated by fire. Therefore the ceremony is a big send off. The Balinese look forward to it, often make provision for it during life, and an ostentatious event gains prestige for the family. Expenses are often enormous with priest’s fees, costly structures, offerings, and food and entertainment provided for guests. Often a family of limited means must wait, sometimes for years, to save enough money.
Upon death, elaborate religious and purification rites are observed, lasting several days. The body is then taken to a cemetery and buried. Once the family has marshaled enough resources a priest determines an auspicious day for the cremation and the body is exhumed. An effigy is made to contain the soul and it is cared for until the cremation. On the eve of cremation the effigy is presented to a priest for final blessing.
The next day the body is placed in an elaborately designed and decorated tower for transport. As many as 75 men are required to carry it. When all the preparations are ready and guests have been feasted, a grand procession starts toward the cremation grounds. Attended by music, dancers, revelers, and women carrying effigies, the tower is turned, spun, and whirled to confuse the spirit and prevent it from reentering the body. Upon arrival at the grounds the body is brought down a ramp from the tower and placed in an animal-shaped sarcophagus which in turn is placed on a pyre under a pavilion. Family come forward to honor the deceased, a priest recites prayers, holy water is poured over the sarcophagus, offerings and tributes are added to the pyre, the soul effigy is added, and after a final blessing all is set ablaze. Throughout the entire affair there is no hysteria and, by western standards, little reverence. Since the body is merely a vessel the ceremony is attended by much joking, laughing, and even talking to the corpse. Much later, when all is consumed, the ashes are placed in an urn, a new procession is formed, and the family and attendees march to the sea. There the ashes are dumped and the family bathes in the water for ritual cleansing.
As suggested above, perhaps the most remarkable feature of a Balinese cremation and Balinese culture in general is the way travelers are encouraged to participate. All western sensibilities of voyeurism must be suspended. There is no feeling of intrusion. While one cannot plan long range for a cremation, on Imprint’s Beautiful Bali tour we have deliberately structured our itinerary to allow maximum flexibility for attending a cremation as an included tour activity. A few weeks before the tour we will consult the Balinese calendar. It is very likely that at least one cremation will take place during the fortnight of the tour. With the exception of days 3-5 (when we fly to Jogjakarta on neighboring Java), we will be able to accommodate a cremation excursion on any day of the tour.*

*Provided the cremation is within reasonable driving distance.