Cremation – Periodically

The Ngaben is the last and most important ceremony of every Balinese life. It’s the Balinese word for the cremation of the dead, in which the soul is released entirely from the body to ascend to heaven and to be reincarnated.

The cremation is a big happening in Bali, especially in the Ubud area.

But before a cremation can actually take place, there are many complicated ceremonies and preparations before and after the cremation.

 ngaben cremation bali

 The three major events which take place before the soul of the deceased is fully released are:

Before the influence of the Majapahit, which spread the Hindu religion throughout Bali, the Balinese guided the soul of the deceased in a more simple way.  The deceased was taken into the forest where the high humidity and the animals would break the body down quickly. Through this way the soul would be released from the body.  Today this burial method only takes place in the Bali Aga villages, such as Tenganan and Trunyan who have never been influenced by the Majapahit before.

 

The Funeral

In Bali a funeral takes place shortly after a person dies, unlike the Hindu in India where the deceased is cremated immediately.  The deceased is buried at the Pura Dalem, the temple complex facing the sea. The Pura Dalem is also often referred to as ‘the temple of the dead’.

The length of the period between the funeral and the ngaben depends entirely on the financial position of the family, sometimes it even takes years.  Only the rich are cremated soon after they have died.

 

pura dalem monkey forest ubud
The pura dalem in Monkey Forest, Ubud

Priests, who always belong to the highest caste, are never buried. They are kept in their own house until the family has gathered sufficient money for the ngaben.  Before the funeral the body of the deceased is purified according to several ceremonies and then buried. The family can place daily food offerings on a small shrine that is built next to the grave.

At the head and the feet of the grave the Balinese always place small coconut-leaves. This enables the demon of the deceased to find its way back after wandering at night. If there are no leaves at the grave, then the demon will wander for ever which the Balinese believe will have a negative impact on the village and family.

The whole period before the actual ngaben is experienced as a very sad time as the Balinese believe that during this period the soul is not able the reach heaven yet.  Only when there is enough funding, all the preparations have been made and the appropriate date has been determined by the priests, will the soul of the deceased be released through the Ngaben.

The Cremation — Ngaben

Every Balinese family has the responsibility to ensure that a proper ngaben takes place if a family member dies. If this does not happen this will have severe consequences for the deceased and his/her family.  Families who can’t afford a cremation often await the ngaben of a important or royal person.

The preparations for these people are always the best one can have, as the best priest is called upon, the holiest water is used and the most appropriate date is chosen for the cremation.

With everything perfectly planned and set for the big cremation, other bodies will be cremated too so they can profit from the ideal setting in which the cremation will take place.  The families of the deceased will then know for sure that the soul will be guided to heaven under the best circumstances.

 

preperation ceremonies ubud bali
The ceremonies before a mass cremation in Ubud

It is not uncommon to have a mass cremation of 100 people on the same day as the ultimate royal cremation when money does not play an issue.  Unlike the funeral, the ngaben is a joyful occasion as the soul of the deceased is now ready to continue its journey to heaven followed by reincarnation.

Before the ngaben takes place, numerous preparations need to be organized. The body will be taken out of its temporary grave at the Pura Dalem and carried to its former house three days before the cremation.  During the whole process complicated rituals follow a specific order.

 

offerings cremetion offerings bali
The offerings are carried to the pura dalem

A day before the cremation one final ceremony is held at the Pura Dalem. This is when everybody is beautifully dressed in traditional Balinese clothing and when the colorful offerings are carried to the temple.  On the day of the ngaben the body is transported to the Pura Dalem in a funeral tower. The tower is made out of wood and bamboo.

The village carpenter and carvers create an amazing structure full with bright decorations.  The funeral tower can be a couple to 10 meters high. In the past it was common to see really high towers, however today this is hardly possible since there are to many telephone and electricity cables hanging over the streets…

 

tower ngaben bali
The body of the deceased is transported in this tower

The tower consists of three levels, of which the platform is the highest. Here the body is placed while the priests stands next to it and escorts it to the Pura Dalem. The base of the tower is built on bamboo poles which is then placed on the shoulders of a group of men who will carry the tower to the temple.

In order to ensure that the soul of the deceased doesn’t find his/her way back home the men confuse it by twisting, twirling and making full circles with the tower.  All the men in the village are delighted to take part in this un-organized spectacle. As an spectator you are just surprised that the tower is still standing in the end…

In front of the procession another group of men are carrying the sarcophagus, often in the form of a black bull. It is a impressive structure and the decorations are often very grand as a lot of gold is used in the decorations.

 

ngaben bull bali
The bull in which the body will be placed just before the cremation

The sarcophagus always arrives first at the temple, and waits here for the funeral tower to arrive. There is a opening on the back of the bull in which the body will be placed.

The final rituals are conducted by the priest who sprinkles holy water on the bull and offerings are placed.  Then the sarcophagus is set on fire in order to purify the deceased.

 

bull set on fire
Once everything is burnt to ashes, is the soul able to leave this world

In the past the widow would be cremated together with her deceased husband as it was her duty to assist him in finding the right way. But fortunately, when the Dutch ruled over Bali they forbade these practices…

The initial purification of the deceased is a fact only when the whole sarcophagus is turned into ashes.  The white ashes of the bones are separated from the others and then places with flowers into yellow and white cloth.  Only then is the soul of the deceased ready for the final ceremony, in which the soul of deceased is awaken by the priest one final time.

The Final Purification

The final ceremony after the ngaben is usually 12 days after the cremation. But because it is another expensive happening, it can take longer before this ceremony actually takes place.  During this ceremony the remaining ashes that was placed in white and yellow cloth is transported on a beautiful construction to the sea.  If the sea is too far, then the ashes will be taken to a river which will eventually carry it to sea.

final ceremony bali
The ashes will be placed at sea so the soul is fully released

During the ngaben the soul of the deceased has been purified by fire and resides in heaven where life is just as in Bali but without diseases and problems.  However, during the last ceremony in which the ashes are placed in the water the soul is released to a higher level. From here the soul can follow the final stage of reincarnation.

The Balinese people believe that the soul will return back as a reincarnation of a new family member, such as the first baby born after this final ritual.

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