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Ngaben Bali Cremation Ceremony


The most important of the Balinese ritual is that includes funeral rites and cremation or Ngaben. To maintain and preserve every aspect of the Balinese’s cultural life,

A cremation or Ngaben is a superb study of all the most important symbols of Balinese ceremonial life, what anthropologist James Boon calls “a vast historical and ethnographic musing on the inevitability of death.” The Balinese believe a person’s sojourn on earth is but a short interlude in the long evolutionary process of the soul. Death occurs when the soul escapes from the body, but out of habit it continues to hover around the corpse. The soul cannot be freed as long as there is a body; only when the corporeal container is destroyed by the elements can the soul be liberated FROM all worldly ties.

Because the Balinese perceive death not as an end but as a new beginning, a cremation or Ngaben is a time of joyous celebration, the greatest day in a person’s life. The ‘Ngaben’ ritual is the last and most important rite a family can perform for a loved one. Failure to free the soul by neglecting a cremation, or by incomplete or improper rites, renders the soul into a ghost who will wreak havoc on its neglectful descendants.

For hundreds of years, cremation was a privilege of the noble classes, but today it is estimated 10-30% of all Hindu Balinese cremates their dead. Except for the disappearance of suttee, the practice of widows immolating themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands (the last occurred in 1903), and Balinese ‘Ngaben’ rites haven’t changed significantly in well over 300 years. However, the quality and elaborate nature of ceremonies performed today are more determined by the underwriting of overseas film units than by the fees paid to high priests. A priest’s main job is to consecrate the deceased and his effigy with holy water, cleanse the body before cremation, and write letters of introduction (Ratnyadana) to open the doors of heaven for the soul. Only high Brahman priests may officiate at cremations of the highborn, and only the poor would hire a lesser ranking ‘Pemangku’.

Creamation 1


The signal of death in a house is a coconut-oil lamp hung from a long bamboo pole high over the roof. During the period before cremation, the soul of the deceased is thought to be agitated, longing for release, and the lamp enables the wandering spirit to find its way home in the dark.

On the first auspicious day after death, the body is prepared for purification and pre-burial. If the cremation is to take place quickly and the body to remain in the house, it may be mummified. If necessary, the teeth are filed. While prayers and mantras are recited, the corpse is rubbed with a mixture of sandalwood powder, salt, turmeric, rice-flour, and vinegar. The hands are bound and folded over on the breast in the gesture of prayer. Mirror-glass is placed on the eyelids, slivers of steel on the teeth, a gold ring in the mouth, jasmine flowers in the nostrils, and iron nails on the limbs, all to ensure a more perfect rebirth with “eyes as bright as mirrors, teeth like steel, breath as fragrant as flowers, and bones of iron.” An egg is rolled over the body, and the corpse then wrapped in many meters of white cloth.

If the cremation will be postponed and it’s decided the cadaver will be buried and not mummified, the corpse is carried to the graveyard accompanied by chanting relatives bearing offerings. The body is then buried, often simply wrapped in cloth and placed directly on the earth. Open mourning is forbidden; a weeping child is sent out of the cemetery. The body will lie buried until it is burned. A small bamboo altar is erected next to the grave and offerings brought to it daily for 12 days. Forty-two days after death more offerings are placed, at which time it’s believed the soul has fled the body.

The expense of a cremation ceremony can be staggering. With hundreds of callers to feed, entertain, and keep supplied with cigarettes for as long as a week, a special ‘gamelan’ ensemble required, and priest’s and assistant’s fees, an elaborate mass cremation can easily cost eight to 12 million Rupiah. It takes 2 million rupiah alone to take down power lines so that cremation towers can pass underneath. But for this spectacular send-off – the life goal of every Balinese – a family is prepared to make sacrifices. One of the kings of southern Bali killed in the mass suicide in Denpasar in 1906 wasn’t officially cremated until 28 years after his death. Only then was the family at last able to accumulate enough wealth to give him a proper departure befitting his high rank. Among people of the lower castes, the extravagant cost has produced a tendency to forget to open the grave of long-dead relatives and perform the overdue cremation. Apparently, the risk of the deceased soul haunting the living, requiring constant appeasement with offerings, just doesn’t frighten the survivors the way it used to.

Creamation 2


Days before the cremation, relatives “reawaken” the deceased by opening the grave. The remains are cleaned and wrapped in a white sacral cloth and taken to the cremation grounds to await the arrival of the coffin containing the effigy, which takes the place of the actual bones. Bones buried in unclean ground may never enter the family compound. On the morning of the cremation, relatives and friends visit the house to pay their respects.

When all the guests have partaken of a lavish banquet, the village ‘Kulkul’ is sounded to begin the final march to the cremation grounds. Incited by the climactic rhythms of the ‘gamelan’, members of the dead man’s ‘Banjar’ rush into the home and lift the corpse from its stretcher and hoist it, by way of an elaborate decorated stairway (Raren), onto a soaring decorated wood and bamboo tower (bade) supported on a bamboo substructure. The tall bade is a fantastic Christmas tree-like creation beautifully decorated with tinsel, paper ornaments, flowers, glittering mirrors, and expensive fabrics. Since height is considered holy, the higher the tower, the higher the rank of the deceased. Towers for wealthy Ksatriya may attain heights of 20 or more meters, though the pervasive power lines of the island mean the really tall towers of the past are seldom seen today.

For the more elaborate funeral, such as one for a prince, as many as three shifts of 100 men may be required to carry the heavily decorated funeral tower in a tumultuous, setting parade for two or three kilometers to the burning site. A venerable high priest may ride in a sedan chair at the top of the tower, accompanying the mummy; there may even be space provided in front for a small ‘Angklung’ orchestra.

The villagers line up, each with something to carry holy water, ritual accessories, and pyramids of food offerings piled high on their heads. A single, smoothly flowing line of colorfully dressed women leads the parade, carrying a long white cloth attached to the coffin; this “towrope” symbolizes their assistance in transporting the coffin. Men follow, carrying roasted quail and rabbits on sticks the procession moves boisterously amid clouds of dust and fireworks, in an uproar of music, yelling, and hooting, handfuls of old Chinese coins scattered at the participants’ feet. It’s important the parade be bustling, crowded, and noisy-this shows the funeral has achieved large-scale public recognition. Chaos reigns especially around the tower, as relatives struggle to carry the body, each striving to prove loyalty to the deceased. The tower is spun on top of the bearers’ shoulders to confuse the soul and prevent it form finding its way back to its house, where it might make mischief for the living. Since evil spirits may be following, seeking to pilfer the soul, the procession might cross a stream, because spirits hate to get their feet wet, or zigzag down the main street, to confuse the corner-impaired creatures. Finally, the near-stampede streams onto the cremation grounds.

Creamation 4


The cremation grounds are usually located near the temple of the dead in the cemetery just outside the village. In the center of the grounds stands an animal-shaped sarcophagus, the appropriate figure determined by the caste of the deceased: a bull for a Brahman male, a cow for a Brahman woman, a winged lion for the Ksatriya class, a mythological half-elephant, half-fish (Gadjamina) for a lower-class Sudra. Once hewn of tree trunks, these coffins are now constructed of bamboo and plaster. Access is gained through a lid in the back. The entire coffin is draped with velvet or other expensive cloth and decorated with gold leaf, silk scarves, and cotton wool. Sometimes the Balinese rig the bull-shaped sarcophagus so its sexual organs become distended and red with bloods when someone pulls a hidden string.

When the cremation tower reaches the burning site, a lengthy white shroud (Kajang) is attached to the body. Held over everyone’s heads, the corpse is led by the ‘kajang’ down from the tower and placed inside the coffin. The fragile, pagoda-like tower, no longer of any use, is tipped over and stripped of all valuables. A sea of fingers then passes ritual items up to be placed on the coffin. Family members huddle together to take one last look at their loved one, then a high priest climbs up on the platform to recite prayers over the body. Pots of holy water are poured over the corpse, then shattered on the ground. Hundreds of old Chinese coins are showered over the body as ransom to Yama, the Lord of the Underworld. After all the precious materials are piled on top, the high priest ignites the fuel under the pyre. In the span of a few seconds, the splendid tower-coffin, offerings, decorations-is engulfed in flames, hundreds of thousands of Rupiah going up in smoke in one last wild extravagant gesture. The Balinese believe that the soul is lifted to heaven on the column of smoke.

Westerners find it curious how the Balinese treat the body of a dead relative. While the soul is regarded as all-important, the body is considered a foul, contaminated object to be dispensed with at the first opportunity. At cremations men clobber burning bodies with bamboo poles in order to break them up so they burn better. Corpses are unceremoniously prodded by relatives who make raucous jokes, mocking the body for not burning fast enough so they can all go home. As the fire subsides, the ‘Pedanda’ climbs the elevated platform and utters a few ‘mantra’, ringing a bell to hasten the soul’s journey to heaven. The eldest son rakes the ashes to make sure all the flesh is burned.

Water is poured over the embers, and children are allowed to poke through the hot muddy ashes for coins and trinkets. The white bone ash is carefully separated from the wood ash. Sometimes the remaining, blackened bones are piled into a small mound, and then placed in a clay vessel or coconut shell. Carried on a richly decorated sedan chair, the ashes will eventually be borne in another disorderly, laughing procession to the sea or to a nearby seagoing river, where they are set adrift, finally freeing the soul. A small ‘Prahu’ is sometimes used to carry ashes out past the reefs so they won’t wash ashore.

This act represents the final purification and disposal of the material body, the ultimate purification of the triple cleansing cycle of earth, fire, and water. Later, there are private, often quite elaborate ceremonies for the care of the soul. In these rites the soul takes its rightful, honored place as one of the family ancestral deities installed in a special shrine in the family temple. Twelve to 42 days after the burning, offerings and powerful incantations are made on the soul’s behalf. Wealthier families even construct a second tower at this time, nearly as elaborate as the cremation tower.

Creamation 5


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