We were lucky enough to see a Bali cremation ceremony before leaving Nusa Lembongan. We had read about these elaborate rituals that, like the Indian Hindus, involve sending cremated remains into the water. In Bali, they send remains into the sea. With all of our beach-going, we were really hoping to see one. The day we arrived, our host informed us there would be a mass cremation two days. We were stoked!
You might be thinking, "Mass cremation? What's up with that?" Let me explain.
WARNING: This blog is about death, and the process by which Balinese deal with it. If you're squimish or are are not in the right frame of mind to handle that, then it's probably better to stop reading now. That said, the most graphic this gets is the discussion of bones, and some photos of them.
Feeling reading to move forward? Let's do it.
Bali cremation rituals are very elaborate. So much so, that few can afford the $3,500 price tag. Most people wait until there are lots of others wanting the ceremony, thereby creating the mass cremations. This makes it much more cost-effective because once the event is all set up, adding extra people is a nominal price increase. Oftentimes, people have to wait until they gave enough money even for the mass cremation. We've met a few people that had to wait three years.
So what do they do while they wait? They bury the loved one until two days before the cremation.
We were lucky enough to see a Bali burial within our first week in Indonesia. This process has a ritual too, and while it's similar to the cremation part, it is much less involved, and as such, much less expensive.
For the burial, the person is wrapped in a pandan mat (rolled, really, so if the person is tall, they may not be fully covered), given a bunch of offerings, blessed, and lowered into the ground. There's no box, and no cloth, just the woven pandan mat.
When the family can afford the cremation, the loved one is exhumed with a similar ceremony, and their bones are wrapped in (much smaller) pandan mats. Because the person was not put in a box, it only takes two or three months for the bones to be completely clean.
In Bali, each caste is represented by an animal, and life-size animals are created for that representation. Each person being cremated will be associated with a specific animal.
Since there were 24 people being cremated, most animals were associated with. Ore than one person. On the day of the cremation ceremony, families take photos, and selfies, in front of the animal that is for their family member.
I live that in this culture, selfies at a funeral, and having fun in general, is not frowned upon. Indeed, it's common!
The families adorn animals with gifts and offerings.
Each animal is the taken, parade style, to the cremation location. Since here were over a dozen animals, all but one was taken down immediately. One animal, I forget exactly which one, but it was from the huger caste I'm sure, is used during the long parade.
The long parade (for lack of the proper term) is the traditional part of the ritual. The part that should happen for every individual person, if this were a cremation for just one person. Since there were twenty-four (!) people being cremated, it makes sense that this next step would only be done with one representative animal. The animal above went directly to the site.
The whole hour-long parade was accompanied by the gamelin marching band. They were great!
The animal effigy was joined by a large tower, representing god. It is so big that electrical wires had to be held up by bamboo poles so they didn't get caught. Below you can see the number of men required to lift up one corner. The thing was exactly as wide as the street.
Why so many lifters? Because both the effigies are shaken like there's no tomorrow. The point is to confuse the spirits of the deceased so they find their way onward, and don't stay here. We were on the "median" (the for-wide space between the street and a cement fence) and had to squeeze as far back as possible, lest we brain one of the guys with the camera lens.
It was a really humid day, and the tower had one guy on each side fanning he guys carrying it. Bystanders would douse them all in water. These guys worked hard, as I'm sure you can guess.
The parade went up and down the street for two hours, and most of the town village came out for it. Some tourists did too. It's was a ton a fun.
After they finish shaking the heck out if these things, they are brought to the cremation grounds.
Along with a few other effigies.
The tower has packages that contain remains of each person being cremated, which are distributed to their respective families.
I assume that's a name tag hanging from the remains below.
After all the parcels are distributed, the animal effigies are all cut open. There are only a dozen or so effigies, but 24 cremations, which means that many animals contain more than one person's remains. This isn't evenly divided; some animals had one person, others had six, determined by caste.
The remains are given offerings by family members.
The blessing is done with holy water, contained in little clay pots, in plastic bags. The priest uses a flower with which to spread the holy water. Really, the flower is used to flick the holy water on the remains. A dozen times. For each person. It's no wonder these things take so long!
The effigies are then set aflame with the remains inside, and offerings both inside and out. If goes up really quickly, with the help of a few matches. And lots of gasoline. Lots.
Once the fire is going, a member from each family must throw the object below into the fire. It seems like this is to appease the evil spirits, or it was used for another part of the ceremony and is just being burned because nothing is saved.... we've been told both. Either way, t's a mini version of the "bed" that is used to send the cremated remains into the ocean.
After the fire is done, the coals are put out with water. The bones are then separated and each family takes turns collecting theirs.
I know what you're thinking: But wait... if there are mutilple bodies in each effigy, and they're all right next to each other, how do they know whose bones are whose? The don't! That's the most interesting part. They just know that they have about a one in ten chance (10%) that the have the correct remains. But honestly, it doesn't seem to matter in the slightest. As far as they're concerned, whichever remains they pick up are the correct ones.
After all the cremated remains are collected, each family sits down at a pandan mat, covered with a white cloth with an auspicious drawing on it. On top of that is a large leaf, covered with other types of greenery. All this greenery is very specific, and even layered and layed out in a particular fashion.
The cremated remains are then set on top. The bones are layed so that they are in the shape of the body (head, arm and legs bones being in the correct places).
The remains are then layered with various offerings.
And it is all rolled up in the pandan mat and a piece of white cloth.
Some of the ashes are then ground up. All the family members do a little bit, as do members from each of the other families participating.
The ashes are then put in a fresh coconut. The yellow coconuts are not edible, and are only used for offerings.
The coconuts are wrapped up in white cloth and adorned with fresh flowers,
and put onto an offering tray, along with many other offerings.
They trays are put on an an "offering bed" (for lack of the proper term) along with the wrapped bones. Each animal effigy has it's own "bed", and whichever person was cremated in the effigy is put on that respective bed. Some beds had only one body, others had five or six -- it varied.
Everything was blessed again by the priests. There were over a dozen priests present.
At the beach, there are more offerings and blessings.
After the sun goes down, and once it's completely dark, the family wades through the water and brings the "beds" to boats, so that the beds can be released into the ocean.
The ritual doesn't stop there, it continues for days, or even months afterwords, with more ceremonies, and more offerings in the sea. It's quite elaborate, as I'm sure you've gathered. We were very lucky to witness it in such an intimate setting. We drove by a mass cremations in Bali and there were so many people that traffic delays were horrendous. I would guess easily a thousand people were there. Ours only had a couple hundred at the peak.