Funerals in Bali,
How a human becomes a “God”

The cremation ("Ngaben", "Palebon") is the most well-known and spectacular religious ceremony in Bali. Its origins are Hindu, but many non-Hindus elements make the Balinese incineration very different from the one practiced in India.

All the community takes part in it, and a great amount of wealth is devoted to it (really an enormous amount sometimes). It is indeed only one part of a long succession of rites intended to purify the deceased of any physical and terrestrial stain, in order to definitively open to him the divine world of the ancestors. When the purification is perfect, the deceased become Gods and lose their idendity (of "the concept of “idendity” in Bali"). Several stages can be necessary. The term "Pirata" indicates the soul of those which are not incinerated yet, and "Pitara" the souls which after incineration have only reached a partial purification.

In general, the deceased are buried straight after death. When the ceremony is decided, all members of the family meet, and let the soul of the deceased know, during a small ceremony whether in the temple of death (“Pura Dalem”) or within the cemetery that an incineration will be organized for them. The dead are then removed from the grave but not necessarily burned: sometimes effigies (inhabited by the soul of the deceased) are getting incinerate in stand.

The ceremony of cremation itself comprises three feast days. The first is used to purify the corpse from head to toes with holy water. The second to elaborate the offerings, some of them being high structures solidly built of wood. The third is the incineration. The body is then placed in the funeral tower ("Bade") which can take up to 12 meters in height, depending on the wealth of the family and the caste. They are often very artistic and the manufacture is extremely costly.

It represents the symbol of mount Merupakan, the universe. Its base represents the lower world and stands on a bamboo structure carried on the shoulders by men, sometimes hundreds of them. Above, we generally find the mythical bird of Garuda, symbolizing the human world: is it there that the corpse of the dead, or is effigy, is put. The third level is composed of a series of roofs in odd numbers, depending on the caste and the level of nobility. The king of Klunkung was the only person allowed to enjoy the maximum number of eleven roofs.

The incineration of a Pedanda (Hindu priest belonging to the Brahman caste) is identical, but the tower does not have a roof. During life hood, such a priest is considered to have already reached the level of union with Siwa. Therefore, he does not need all the funeral rites as ordinary people do.

Please note that in many guide books cremation is presented as an event with surprisingly little expression of sadness. Balinese folk are described as people not being moved by death (because of their faith in reincarnation). This is quite untrue. Usually the very close relatives (wife, children…) will not have the physical and psychological strength to attend the burning of the corpse itself. They go back home before fire is put on the funeral tower.

Sometimes, during the procession from the house to the place where the funeral tower will be burned, they may enter into trance and feel inhabited by their beloved dead parent. They may cry, shout, tremble, run away as if they were suddenly getting crazy. It is true on the other hand that the “large” family will appear unmoved by the ceremony. In fact most of them have already spent much time preparing the ceremony.

The burning of the funeral tower, if it is the liberation of the deceased’s soul, it is as well the liberation of the relatives duties, which are much bigger then in West. Balinese people do consider practical proves of affection (giving time and financial support for the preparation of the ceremony) much more important then tears.

See also: Photo Gallery: Ngaben - Cremation of Low Caste

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