Vibrant colors consumed fire in Bali
The day started with breakfast in bed: dragon fruit, “salak” (snakeskin fruit), nuts, toast and coffee. Little did I know that I would see a half-burned body before dinner.
I had a few days off around the Lunar New Year and wanted to go some place warm. My husband was working in Congo at the time, so we picked a vacation spot that wasn’t too far for either one of us. Bali was his idea, but I’m glad he talked me into it. We rented a small villa close to Echo Beach, where surfers in their 40s went to bed at 10 p.m. No nightlife, no clubs — just a few restaurants, spas and rice paddies.
We had a fantastic driver who spoke English, so we asked him to show us the real Bali: the foods that local people enjoyed, the markets where they shopped. Gunputra delivered it all — we were breakfasting at local cafés and dining in places we would have given a wide berth before.
On our way to see the Ubud village, north of the place where we were staying, by chance we happened to see a funeral procession passing by. It was probably the first time in my husband’s life that he did not complain about a traffic jam. It was his idea to jump out of the car and follow the procession on foot.
Balinese funerals, or “ngaben,” are famous throughout the world; they are colorful events full of singing and celebration. The deceased are cremated outdoors in a daylong, picnic-like affair before their ashes are buried at sea. Close to 85 percent of Balinese identify as Hindu, yet the island’s indigenous animistic traditions have a strong influence on their beliefs and practices. As bizarre as it may seem to Westerners, Balinese have great fun during cremation ceremonies. It is a time for the whole family to gather and mingle with friends and neighbors.
Gunputra seemed to know everyone on the island, including some members of the deceased man’s family. We asked if it was OK to join in the ceremony, and to our surprise Gunputra said it was no problem.
We found out that the dead man was one of the village elders. His family was carrying his shrouded remains to the cremation site on a bamboo tower, together with a huge sarcophagus in the form of a black bull. The relatives twirled the body around during the procession to confuse the man’s spirit and prevent him from finding his way home.
Once the procession reached the burial ground, in keeping with the local custom, the shrouded remains were placed in the sarcophagus and set on fire. Another person was being cremated nearby. It was a horrifying sight, from my perspective, yet the locals seemed relaxed and cheerful. No one stayed silent. Children were playing and hawkers were selling toys. Nobody was crying — people were sitting on the grass, chatting and laughing.
On our way back, Gunputra answered our questions about the things we’d seen. Later, I did some research and learned that the rituals reflected Balinese beliefs surrounding karma and reincarnation. Balinese believe that cremating the body frees the soul, which can then ascend to heaven and be reborn. Before the cremation, family members wash and prepare the body — often after exhuming it from a temporary grave because funerals can cost thousands of dollars.
We were the only foreigners to join the funeral procession early on, when the body had just left the house. During the cremation ceremony I noticed two other foreign couples taking photos, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone. The atmosphere recalled weddings more than funerals — after all, the families were celebrating the fact that their loved ones would soon be reborn. Of course Balinese feel grief like anyone else, but they are taught to suppress it and focus on helping the soul cross over. What struck me the most was the barbecue stand peddling satay chicken, skewered on bamboo sticks, no more than 10 meters away from the burning bodies.
It was almost surreal. All those vibrant colors being consumed by fire. It makes you realize that once you are dead, it’s all gone; your life will simply vanish. You can’t take any belongings with you to the afterlife. Somehow, it makes you understand that you must use every opportunity to live your life with no regrets — enjoy your time on Earth and never look back.
More information: To learn more about Balinese funerals and the beliefs behind the rituals, please see “Ngaben: emotion & restraint in a Balinese heart” (film guide), http://www.der.org/resources/study-guides/ngaben-study-guide.pdf
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