Ashes to Ashes

Secret Bali | Written By, NOW! BALI |

The Balinese have numerous ceremonies and rites to keep their lives running in a smooth, flowing pattern. Many even some Balinese don’t know about, and many more, we visitors know little of. Sometimes, when a less rich person dies, there is not enough money for an elaborate ngaben or funeral. So what happens is they are buried in a public keburan or graveyard until the money is enough to pay for the necessary rites. Many times, it will be a group ceremony when as many as twenty or thirty families will gather together to hold a suitably impressive ceremony and send the soul on its way.

Text & Photos by Ayu Sekar

The Balinese have numerous ceremonies and rites to keep their lives running in a smooth, flowing pattern. Many even some Balinese don’t know about, and many more, we visitors know little of.

Sometimes, when a less rich person dies, there is not enough money for an elaborate ngaben or funeral. So what happens is they are buried in a public keburan or graveyard until the money is enough to pay for the necessary rites. Many times, it will be a group ceremony when as many as twenty or thirty families will gather together to hold a suitably impressive ceremony and send the soul on its way.

With the Balinese love of ceremony, this is not a simple task and there are many rituals before the cremation takes place. The bodies need to be exhumed, (usually they have been buried for several years before this happens), the bones washed, rites and prayers uttered, then the separate packages of bones will be collected and burned, then the ashes scattered to the sea.

After this the spirits of the departed are believed to be awoken and then a few days later, the true cremation will take place, with symbolic bodies.

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to a Mungkah ceremony where this all took place. Situated on a grassy knoll under big shading trees, the whole village or Banjar collected to do the last rites for thirteen of their departed. Three unborn babies were also there – symbolically at least.

After a big, healthy early lunch, the small procession made its way to the spot where people sat and chatted, while others started to dig through the rich loamy soil. Some people watched, subdued exclamations could be heard as the shovels came close to the kain (cloth) that held the remains. Amazingly, even with those who had been buried for ten years or more, the wrapping cloths were still quite intact.

The Balinese seem to have a much healthier acceptance of death than westerners. It is considered to be the other side of life and it is all part of the cycle with nothing to fear. So that even though some may consider the topic a trifle grisly, it was almost pleasant.

As the bones were brought up, they were collected in some kind of palm trunks then brought for the washing. Everyone likes to get their hand in it seems, especially for their own relative. Some folk even washed the teeth with a tooth brush and a very visible tube of Pepsodent!  

Tears appeared during the washing ceremony as some women remembered their loved ones as they had been. There is a sadness but it was never somber. The big fire cleansed these last remains before the raking of the ashes. Then after the collection, and more chanting, a perfunctory motorbike procession made it to the beach. The big procession would wait until the actual cremation day.

This was one of the most moving and personal ceremonies I have experienced. The village folk hold beliefs with their hearts and it was not at all about show or fashion, just a part of life to be dealt with and a quiet enjoyment.!

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