The Balinese view the cremation of a loved one as a time of celebration, and this is one reason why the Ngaben ceremony is so remarkable to outsiders. The local people are usually willing to allow respectful foreign guests to experience this unique way of sending off the deceased to the next life. One of the surprising things is that the person who is being cremated may have already been dead for years, but it is only now that the family can afford the cremation ceremony.
Importance of Balinese Spiritual Beliefs
Visitors to Bali will usually come to the conclusion early on in their trip that the local people are deeply spiritual. It is the land of 10,000 temples, and this gives some indication of the importance that spirituality has played in the island’s history, and how it continues to play a key role today. Religious festivals occur regularly throughout the year, and there are ceremonies connected with almost every facet of life here. The majority of the Balinese, 95% of the population, would be described as followers of Hinduism, but their traditions are also deeply influenced by earlier indigenous beliefs. The ceremonies surrounding death are particularly significant to the local people, and they have their own unique way of dealing with the end of life- which they view as a transition.
Balinese Beliefs surrounding Death
The Balinese view death as being part of a continuous cycle that involves birth, life, and death. This cycle continues until the person’s soul is purified. When this point of complete purification is reached, the individual can then be united with God. The local people believe that the person who has just died will soon be reborn as somebody else, and all newborn children are thus seen as reincarnated souls. In order for the dead person to be able to reincarnate they must first be released, and the Balinese Cremation Ceremony is what makes this happen. If the dead person lived a particularly good life, they may even skip reincarnation altogether to enter a state known as Moksha where they will finally be free of the cycle of life and death.
Ngaben is the Balinese word that local people use when referring to their cremation ceremony – it can be translated as meaning, “turning into ash”. This is the ritual they follow when ushering the person into their next life or sending them on to Moksha. Unlike funeral services in other parts of the world, in Bali it is a time to celebrate. Tourists should not be surprised to hear local people talk about how much fun they had at one of these occasions, and if foreign visitors are lucky enough to attend one they will see for themselves that it is far from a somber occasion. The goal of those attending the ceremony is to help the dying person cut any ties they have to their old life, so that they will feel happy to move on. If the occasion was sad, the deceased might worry and use this as an excuse to hang around.
The day for the Ngaben to take place is always selected by a priest, and it will be based on the Balinese calendar. As part of the preparations the family will be expected to arrange for two important items that will be used in the ceremony:
- The waddhu/bade is a tower like construction that has multiple levels – the more levels the construction has, the important the person was in their life. It is usually made from bamboo, paper, and wood.
- The Lembu is coffin where the deceased’s body will stay for the ceremony. Lembu means ox, and the coffin is usually designed to look like this animal – it is also possible to have the coffin look like other animals.
As well as these two important items, the family will also be expected to pay for:
- Special offerings that will be given on behalf of the deceased.
- A Gamelan musical procession that will accompany the deceased to the cremation pyre.
- The family will usually sponsor a traditional puppet.
- Food and drink for guests.
The cremation day begins with a procession, and during this time the cremation tower will be twirled around – this is to confuse the deceased, so they will not be tempted to return home. For most of the ceremony there will be a real festival atmosphere, and it is only when the body is being burnt that family members will become a bit solemn. The fire will be lit by a priest, and the source of the flame will be a special holy fire. After the body has been turned to ashes it will then be sprinkled with holy water. These ashes will later be delivered into the sea.
During the 12 days following the Ngaben, there will be a final cleansing where family member will build effigies of the deceased and burn them. These ashes will also need to be disposed of in the sea. If the family suspects that any part of the ceremony was not performed correctly they will need to contact a spirit medium to find out how things can be put right.
Balinese Cremation Ceremony in Modern Times
In order to get the Ngaben ceremony right, the family will need to spend a good deal of money. It is so expensive that most families just can’t afford it, so they will choose to join with other families and have a group Ngaben where the financial burden is spread among all of those involved. A family may have to wait months, or even years, before they have the money even for a shared Ngaben. Those families who can afford to pay for their own ceremony will be able to arrange things more quickly, but they will still have to wait to be given an auspicious date by a Hindu priest. If the family needs to wait a long time before the cremation, they will usually bury the body first of all.
Those individuals who die and belong to the upper classes in Bali or royalty will usually have a Pelebon (Royal cremation) rather than a Ngaben cremation. This ceremony will be more even more elaborate than standard cremation ceremony, and it will involve a number of different stages. The cremation tower for the Pelebon needs to have nine floors, and it can require as many as 100 people to make it.