I was lucky enough during my time living in Bali to attend a Hindu cremation ceremony or Ngaben. A woman from my colleagues family had died three days prior. It is one of the most important ceremonies in Bali as its purpose is to send the deceased through to their next life. I felt extremely privileged to be there and to watch this ceremony of amazing commitment, love and devotion and of overwhelming community spirit.
At first I was a bit tentative. I felt like I was intruding on a very private thing. I certainly did not want to take photos of the deceased during any of the special rituals but the Balinese encouraged this.
It was a beautiful experience to watch. The body was wrapped in plain cloth and lying within the family alter. The men carried her down to a special bamboo table and uncovered her head and washed her hair. After this, the rest of her was uncovered and all the family gathered around to wash the body, using a special yellow paste.
Her hands, legs, feet, and body were washed thoroughly. She was then wrapped in a beautiful batik material and her hands were filled with coins and rupiah notes. Elaborate gold jewellery was placed on her fingers and she was sprayed with perfume, ready for her next life.
She was then wrapped in more white cloth and then in thin strips of bamboo. More sheets were placed around her and then they carried her to the family alter again whilst everyone sat before her and prayed. A high priest conducted the ceremony. There was so much noise – singing, chanting, gamelan music, bells – to awaken the spirits.
The family compound was packed tightly with hundreds of people from the community, from the elderly to the very young. In Bali, children are not shielded from death and actively participate in the ceremony. There is no fear of death. There are few tears. There is a true belief in reincarnation. There is faith.
After the hour or so of prayer the body was carried out in to the street. It was placed in a temple structure called a wadah made of paper and wood and then this was carried by the young men of the community down to the cremation site about one kilometre away. At every street corner, the body was spun in circles to confuse any evil spirits and keep them away from the deceased. A child, her grandson, sat atop with her in the wadah. The whole community followed the body to the cremation site.
She was removed from the wadah and placed in a sarcophagus which had the head of an elephant on it. The whole structure was then set on fire, enabling the spirit to be free from the body. Before cremating, close family members stood around the sarcophagus placing more offerings and more cloth on her. As the sarcophagus burned everyone sat under the banyan tree sharing a simple Balinese lunch of rice, chicken and vegetables. Later, the ashes would be collected and taken down to the coast to be thrown in to the sea.
I found it quite amazing and at times overwhelming and had to suppress my own emotions. In comparison to my own culture, this was raw, real and in your face. There was no hiding from death behind a curtain or a wooden casket.
There were no words about her or her life already lived, but just a devoted community doing all they could to ensure she would journey easily on to live another good one.