This past week, checking out of my hotel in Ubud, I was eager to set off and start the long scooter trek to my next stop. After returning the key to the front desk, the owner stops me and says, “You’re not staying for the cremation?” She told me it was worth staying for so I figured I’d push the ride back a couple hours and stay to check it out.
It was, hands down, one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.
According to local custom, the Balinese cremation ceremony, or Ngaben, is considered one of the most important events in a person’s continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth (roughly translated, Ngaben means to turn to ash). While there are 6 officially recognized religions in Indonesia, over 80% of the population in Bali practices a unique, local form of Hinduism that incorporates elements of Buddhism and traditional animist beliefs. This burial ritual is unique to Bali and isn’t practiced anywhere else in the country.
Whereas funerals are typically very somber occasions, this custom is a joyous one that celebrates the life of the person who has passed. Shedding tears is seen as bad luck that will disrupt the spirit’s journey into the afterlife. The multi-part ceremony enables the deceased to free their spirit from their earthly body so that they can either be reincarnated or proceed on to heaven.
Throughout the week preceding the Ngaben, I saw several men at a local temple constructing a large papier-mâché buffalo (Lembu). A middle-aged man wearing a checkered, black-and-white sarong and matching head-dress, smoking outside the temple, told me it would be burned on Friday at noon. I didn’t know at the time, but what the men were building was the sarcophagus that would hold the body as it was cremated.
At about 11:15 on Friday, I arrived to where the procession was set to start. The Lembu was completed, elaborately decorated, and sitting atop a 15” x15” bamboo platform. Around it, small crowds of locals and tourists alike snapped pictures while admiring the ornate craftsmanship. In addition to the sarcophagus, there was an elaborate, tall, tiered structure (a Wadah) on a similar bamboo platform. The plain white casket of the deceased would eventually be hoisted up to rest at the top of the Wadah.
Moments before noon, what seemed to be the entire town flooded the streets wearing traditional dress. Two groups positioned themselves beneath the lumbering structures as men with walkie talkies started speaking Bahasa into their radios. Now I wasn’t entirely sure what was about to happen, but as the clock ticked from AM to PM, the drums began.
Have you ever seen that show An Idiot Abroad? That’s what this felt like. At the cue of the drummers, the small army of men lifted the structures up onto their shoulders, screamed, and took off down the street running… As I Iooked around dumbfounded, all I could do was run alongside and avoid being rammed by the raucous crowd behind me. I later learned that the men carrying the structures needed to move quickly in order to “outrun the spirits.”
Upon reaching the first intersection, both structures were briefly set down. With the cacophony of drums continuing to rumble, the beast was lifted again and spun around in a circle. This is done in order to further confuse the spirits, ensuring that the deceased may move peacefully into the afterlife.
When we eventually arrived at the burial grounds of the Sacred Monkey Forest, the top half of the Lembu was cut away, the casket was removed from the Wadah, and the body was placed inside the sarcophagus. As the priest prepared the body and blessed it with holy water with the drumming continuing in the background. In a separate fire on the other side of the grounds, both bamboo platforms were disassembled and set ablaze along with the entire Wadah.
“Everything burns.” -Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
The culmination of the ceremony is the burning of the Lembu and cremation of the remains. At this point, the drumming ceased and a silence settled over the crowd. It was the most somber part of the experience.
Once the fire burns out, the ashes were to be collected and given to the mourning family. After a waiting period of 12 days, the ashes will then be scattered in the ocean. It is believed that after the body is purified by fire, the water will purify the soul, completing the process and allowing for transition into the next phase.
Doing more research afterwards, I learned that the particular ceremony I saw was for a woman who was a wealthy, high-ranking member of the community. This allowed the whole procession to be carried out for a single individual. However, due to the high cost of all of the necessary arrangements, poor families will sometimes wait up to several years after a death of a loved one in order to pool their resources and share the costs with multiple families (a full ceremony can cost $8,000-9,000 USD. The Indonesian GDP per capita is ~$3,500 USD). In 2013, a single Ngaben in Ubud cremated the remains of 60 people in one large service.
All in all, this was a very powerful experience that was moving to be a part of. I’m thankful to all the people present that day for allowing me to be there and participate in this ritual. I understand why David Bowie requested in his final will and testament that he be cremated according to traditional Balinese custom. I consider myself extremely lucky for getting the chance to see this during my time in Bali and it’s something that I’ll never forget.