Mass Cremation in Bali

Balinese people aren’t stressed about much, but the one thing that can create overwhelming tension is the inability to afford to cremate your parents and family.  In the past, cremations have financially ruined poor and middle class families alike who by tradition must provide a suitable cremation ceremony for their loved ones which can cost thousands of dollars.  When you are a farmer earning hundreds of dollars a year…it could have meant selling your land or not putting your kids in school.

Our friends Greg, Esther and Alex with Darmawan's father waiting while the ceremonies go on.

Our friends Greg, Esther and Alex with Darmawan’s father waiting while the ceremonies go on.

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Fortunately, many Balinese villages have adopted the practice of mass cremations where all of the people who die over a five-year or so period are cremated at the same time.  This mass cremation helps because it allows richer families to subsidize poor ones and permits every family to perform their sacred obligations to their loved ones.

We were invited by our friend Darmawan to the village of Tangkas in the Klungkung Regency to participate in its mass cremation of 95 villagers who had died over the past five years.

Sarcophagus containing the bodies from one banjar in the village

Sarcophagus containing the bodies from one banjar in the village

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It was a very long but fascinating day.  Darmawan’s family had lost a young nephew who had died from drinking too much Arrak (palm brandy) five years ago.  His body had been buried for the past five years.  His remains were dug up just before the ceremony and placed in a white cloth for the ceremony.

offerings around the sarcophagus

offerings around the sarcophagus

Cremation represents two important actions. First, it is a physical act in which the five elements of the universe contained in a human body are released by cremation to return to the earth.

The fire begins

The fire begins

More importantly, cremation releases a person’s soul from his body to be returned to the circle of life and death (reincarnation) or to be released from the cycle by seeing the face of God (moksha).  In Balinese tradition, the ritual mechanism for doing this is through a water blessing.  Every person who was cremated was accompanied throughout the cremation ceremony by a woman of his family.

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In our friend’s case this was Puspa, Darmawan’s wife.  She rose at 8am to prepare the water offering from holy water provided by the priest. Just before the cremation, the priest sprinkled holy water from her offering onto the body of her nephew.  After the embers died down at 10pm that night, she carried the ashes to the river for the soul’s final journey back to the spirit world.

Good Whips Evil in Bali Holiday Bash

Panjor at Ashram Gandhi Puri

Panjor at Ashram Gandhi Puri

Twice a year the Balinese celebrate the ten-day Galungan holiday which symbolizes the fight between good and evil….And every six months evil gets its butt kicked.

One of the forces that helps defeat evil during Galungan is the strength of Balinese families. Not only can all the living family members be called upon to help, but conveniently, Galungan is a time when all the ancestors happen to be visiting so they too can summoned as spiritual reinforcements.

Ancestors Temple

Ancestors Temple

And finally, Galungan is a family holiday where mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and kids gather to swap the latest family gossip, catch up on family news and pray together.

Kadek and Wenni

Kadek and Wenni

Ashram men

Ashram men

Ririn and Ogek

Ririn and Ogek

Of course, the drama of evil versus good, ancestor worship and family reunion that make up Galungan are celebrated with ritual and ceremony. We were part of all this on the last day of Galungan when Indra invited us to his family temple for their Galungan ceremony.

Our Pandita is Indra's 82 year-old uncle, a former boxer.

Our Pandita is Indra’s 82 year-old uncle, a former boxer.

Neutralizing the evil spirits with arak and a feast

Neutralizing the evil spirits with arak and a feast

The family temple is located on a mountain top which requiring a steep 30-minute hike through groves of coconut, clove and nutmeg trees. It features a large temple for the ancestors and numerous other smaller temples for the other Gods watching over the family members. The family is part of the Arya Kaloping clan which over the past several hundred years has spread out across Bali and the world. But wherever a family members is located, he or she will always have this place to call home. It’s a very powerful way to keep grounded especially in today’s mobile society.

Offerings

Offerings

Bayu helping to get ready

Bayu helping to get ready

Temple at snset

Temple at sunset

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The family welcomed us as their own to the ceremony. It began by neutralizing the evil gods by giving them some arak (palm whiskey) and stuffing them with food such as eggs and coconut. How else would you deal with evil?

After temporarily subduing evil, the ceremony could move on to the traditional Balinese prayers, water purification ceremony and honoring the ancestors.

After the ceremony we ate a communal dinner of rice, chicken and a country sambal (spicy sauce) that made me sweat even in the cool evening air…

Nengah loses at dominoes and wears a banana on his ear

Nengah loses at dominoes and wears a banana on his ear

And finally we spent the night visiting and then fell asleep under the stars.

Crescent moon above the temple

Crescent moon above the temple

Final Score: Good: 10   Evil: 0….but a rematch has been scheduled in six months.

Canti,

Pak Dave

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