Virtual Vacation: Sending the Spirit Home, Bali Day 26

Before we went to the cremation, Judy, Surya, and staff members who happened by, helped us wrap our sarongs and temple scarves properly, rather than the slap-dash vacation-in-Hawaii-wrap-around style many of us had been sporting.

It wasn’t very far to Munduk Village, but the road was narrow with no sidewalks, and we were all constrained by sarongs into taking small steps, so Surya got two vans to drive us ten minutes down the road into town.

We stood in the shade waiting for the cremation procession to leave the family home and travel the 500 meters it would take to reach us. As we stood waiting with a number of locals who were also lining the street, Surya explained the Balinese relationship to death—and the cremation ritual to us—in much more detail.

Once again, to reassure those of us who were still feeling some trepidation about attending, he said, “Part of our tradition in Bali is that cremation for us is not private—the more people the better. The family feels that we (and here he was referring to us) are helping to send off their loved one. “For them, this is a happy occasion. Although they are in mourning, and feel sad, with the support of the community, they have prepared for this auspicious day. For the four days since the death, the community has shown up every night at the family home to provide support.”

After death, the Balinese keep the body for several days on a special bale in the family compound. There are three ways to preserve the body during this period before cremation: embalming, dry ice (which was used in this case) and with a magic ring, like a ruby, that is threaded over the body so that the ring is on the nose. Surya guarantees us that this alone can keep a corpse from smelling.

Several days before the cremation, the entire village comes to wash the body. There are offerings, gamelan and singing. Holy water from the family temple, the ancestor temple and the three temples in the village are used to cleanse the body. This part of the ceremony is not open to outsiders.

Specific cremation rituals vary village by village, clan by clan. But for all Balinese Hindus, cremation is the first stage of returning the body back to nature. To the Balinese, the body is considered no more than a cage, like old clothes to be discarded or given to Goodwill. So the essential responsibility of the eldest son (and the family) is to free the spirit or the atman from the body by releasing the five elements back to nature. According to the Balinese, the five elements are air, fire, water, earth, and acintya, which is often translated as ether orspace. But Surya says it’s best translated as the undescribable, the unimaginable.

Burial is not used in Bali, because for the Balinese, the bones, and not just the flesh must be transformed to free the person’s spirit back to the 5 elements. It takes far too long for bones to disintegrate underground. Fire is faster and more effective.

There are two parts of the cremation ceremony: The first is the cremation itself. Then, after the body is burned, holy water is sprinkled on the cremains and the ashes are collected. The bones are put inside a hollowed-out yellow coconut. The coconut is closed and wrapped, then dressed like a human with a sarong. A face is drawn on it; an astral being is created. The ashes that don’t fit in the coconut are wrapped in a white cloth. Then the yellow coconut and the wrapped remains are taken to the sea to be released, with temple blessings and ceremonies along the way.

Most people in Bali can’t afford to have both of these ceremonies done at once; a complete cremation is far too expensive: $5000 US or 50 million rupiah, far beyond the means of most families. So most village families cremate their dead and bury the cremains in the village cemetery. Then every ten years, the all the cremains in the graveyard are dug up and blessed, and the community as a whole completes the cremation ritual by taking all the remains to the ocean.

The woman who was cremated today came from a rich family; her body was going to be burned today and taken to the sea same day. Ni Ketut Simpen was a great grandmother in her nineties and today had been determined as the auspicious day for her soul to be freed.

We heard the music coming up the hill and suddenly, Ni Ketut Simpen’s body was being carried on a bier up to the corner where we stood. At every corner, including ours, the pallbearers (I can guarantee you this is not the word used in Bali), turn the bamboo bier is circles, again and again, to confuse the dead person so they be too dizzy and disoriented to return home again.

Music followed the bier as it bobbed up the street, and people were everywhere A little child dressed in white, a great, great-grandchild was lifted up to sit on the bier and ride down the street with his great-grandmother, but he got scared of the height and had to be lifted down.

We followed the procession down the narrow street, cars pressing in on either side. Boys sat in the alleys laughing and talking. The air was festive and light. Many people were on foot; others drove by on scooters, following the procession down the road. People threw rice on the bier all the way down the street. No one gave us a second look. We were just part of the crowd. The mood was celebration, not sorrow. When I asked Surya if the mood would be different it was the death of a child, he said, yes, the parents would be heartbroken.

No one seemed sad today. The mood was definitely upbeat. People seemed dressed in their best clothes. Maybe this spoke more about the financial status of this family.

At each intersection, the corpse was spun to confuse it once again. Periodically, the procession stopped while people made offerings and prayed.

After a curve in the road, the procession moved down a grassy hillside into the village cemetery. It was a field of green with a few bamboo poles for markers—the simplest, most natural cemetery I’ve ever seen. But then again, the dead are only buried here temporarily until they can be dug up for a mass cremation ritual.

The family moved with the body down through stone gates into the cremation grounds. They circled counterclockwise with the body and began performing other rituals that were too far away for us to see. Surya said they were sprinkling holy water to ask permission of the spirit that rules the graveyard for the cremation to begin.

We stood on a rise between the villagers and a bale heaped with offerings.

Villagers and locals rested on two other bales or in the grass, talking, gossiping, laughing, offering each other food and drinks. People were smiling and friendly, engaging us in conversation and happy to talk to us about what we were seeing, their village, and the woman who had died.

A gamelan orchestra, the same one we’d heard last night with the dancers, was set to play beneath one bales and Pak Ketut, our wonderful guide, the man with the “biggest smile in Bali” was one of the musicians:

After twenty minutes of peering toward the area where the family had gathered with the body, a corrugated metal piece was placed down on the ground between the two concrete walls of the cremation chamber, and the body was lowered inside. We could tell the fire had ignited because black smoke started to pour out of one end of the chamber. And soon after that, there were flames. I could hear a loud sucking sound as the fire took hold. We were too far away to smell anything. Surya told us that special wood, blessed by the priest, was being used for the fire, as well as an accelerant:

Once the fire took hold, everyone else moved away but two men, charged by the village to tend cremations, regularly opened one end or the other of the chamber and moved the cremains around with a long metal pole.

Forty minutes after the fire was set, family members began carrying all of Ni Ketut Simpen’s belongings down to the cremation area to be burned in a separate fire. Only her jewelry would be saved, to be distributed to her grandchildren.

As the body continued to burn, attended by the two watchers, everyone else sat and talked and laughed and ate, as if at a carnival. One of the sons of the woman whose body was burning came over to greet and welcome us with a big smile. Ni Ketut’s grandson, whose English was excellent, got in a long conversation with several members of our group about what they were seeing and mamukar ritual that was still to come. The gamelan played—and stopped—and played. Little children blew on pinwheel toys as a man began singing with a sonorous amplified voice a song from the Mahabarata about the journey of the soul.

I looked around me and decided I liked the Balinese traditions around death. Death was not a tragedy or a cause for sorrow to them. It was natural part of the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The family and the community knew what to do and they did it wholeheartedly. Life, death, joy, endings and beginnings, were all wrapped together in the ritual and in the day.

It seemed a fitting way to end our trip, a fitting way to close this chapter of life in Bali. As everyone packs and gets ready for further adventures or the plane ride home, we will be gathering to say goodbye just moments from now.

And now it is time for me to say goodbye to you. Thanks for taking this journey with me. I hope you enjoyed the ride.

P.S.

It’s the next morning now…our last morning…we leave Puri Lumbung for the airport an hour and a half from now. It’s still dark outside and a wild gust of wind just blew the wooden shutters open to our room. Karyn has gone to do her morning yoga practice and so I’m alone, propped up in bed, inside a gauzy white mosquito net, savoring the cool feel of the early morning tropical air for the last time, knowing it will be a year before I’ll be returning to Bali, a place I have  grown to deeply love.

I want to thank you all for following my journey–and I’m sorry I didn’t have the time to respond to each of your individual comments. As you can imagine, it was a challenge just to find the time to write my posts each day. I stayed up late many nights to create my updates–and often worked on them when my students were working on other things in writing class. I enjoyed the discipline of a daily deadline (though self-created) and the chance to move through my day, always looking for a nugget to share with you.

Even though I didn’t have time to respond, I savored every comment you took the time to write back to me. They meant so much to me, to have that thread of connection to home.  And not only did I get to share my trip with you;  I now have a record of my travels, my adventures, my insights, and the depth of culture of the Balinese.

I hope to blog again in August when I take a group of writers to a Victorian mansion in the Scottish Highlands, though that will be much more a writing retreat and less of a travel adventure, so I’m not sure how many stories I will have to tell, but I hope you’ll join me virtually then (and in person if you want–there’s still space).

I’d like to thank Dona Bumgarner who formatted the raw images and text I sent her every day and posted them for me in multiple formats. Her efficient, capable work saved me hours each day and made this blog possible. Gratitude to Tawnya Sargent and Julia Atwood for sharing some of their incredible pictures. I’d also like to thank Debbie Owen, who lovingly and thoughtfully tended the Writer’s Journey Roadmap in my absence. Roadmap writers, I’ll be back next week after I’ve had a bit of time to recover from jetlag.

Thank you again, all, for traveling with me. I hope you get to join me in person someday.

Laura

Comments

  1. Laurie M says

    Safe travels to you and the whole group! It’s been my daily highlight to “travel” with you these last few weeks. Thanks so much for taking the time and having the discipline to write your blog. I feel enriched and inspired for having read it!

  2. Cathy K. says

    Laura,
    It was a pleasure following you on your journey. Thank you for your willingness to share all the exquisite detail.
    See you in a few weeks.
    Happy travels home,
    Cathy

  3. Deanna says

    Laura, I have followed your posts without comment, but today is different. Thank you for the wonderful education on the traditions and rituals of your “loved” land. How much more peace we could attain with our neighbours, if we only stopped to learn as you have taught us these last number of days. I felt that I was with you at this cremation, having been in Bali many years ago, now, but loved it as you do. And, would our grieving in the west change, if we could learn the joy of sending off our loved one to their next life?

  4. Veronica says

    I’m going to miss these posts, Laura. I’m so glad I’ve followed along with you all. Safe travels home and see you next weekend!

  5. June Radicchi says

    I just had the realization that I am going to miss your wonderful daily offerings which I received and read with much appreciation.
    June

  6. Adrienne Drake says

    This virtual vacation has been both a wonderful read and a wonderful ride!!
    Thank you, Laura, and safe travels home to all of you.
    Adrienne

  7. maureen says

    Thanks for letting us share the depth and broadness of your journey. May you all have traveling mercies for your journey home.

  8. Myra Goodman says

    Thank you for all your posts Laura, and safe travels home. I loved today’s post. It made me feel so much better about cremating my wonderful daddy instead of burying him in a Jewish cemetery (I got so much guilt from our religious relatives). It sounds so lovely to celebrate a life, and return the body to nature to free the spirit. Great story to end the journey.

  9. Terry says

    Safe travel home.
    I have thoroughly enjoyed your trip! Thank you so much for your gorgeous sharing.
    Your blogs reminded me and refreshed the memories of my time in Bali and it has been an added gift.
    Love to you and Karyn,
    Terry

  10. Hazel says

    Laura,
    Thank you for all it took to deliver these beautiful stories to us. It was such a joy to follow you all the way.

    I remember when people used to write letters. They would describe their journeys whether away or at home and they were wonderful. Our short e-notes somehow leave a lot to be said. I also remember when everyone would congregate for funerals to remember and send off the dead. In our families there was, of course, mourning but there was also many stories told after the ceremony at the dinners that were held after, usually at someone’s house, or if it was a big gathering it would be at a hall of some kind. The children would play and laugh and the adults would tell stories and laugh, catch up on the news, and hug one another as they left for their respective homes. As I would move from group to group of these story tellers I gathered many stories about the deceased. Things I didn’t know before, when people were “remembering” have become very useful as I am “writing down the bones.” I don’t see much of that anymore. I may be lucky if I get a note that someone has died. Mostly I don’t.

    I truly believe this disregard for our loved ones is a symptom of a failing society. I know everyone is saying we are going to Hell in a hand-basket, but lack of respect and honor for each other is just wrong.

    Obviously, your story about the wonderful burial service, which I am sure took most of the day, made me think of an earlier time in our society.

    Thank you again for sharing your journey!

  11. KW says

    Delightful, charming, insightful,compassionate, curious, intriguing….this generous daily blog has been a joyful ride for me…..as i ‘take’ for the second year in a row……a lovely vacation with you. Thank you for your word art.

  12. Bobbie Anne says

    Laura, Thank you for sharing all of your Bali adventures with me! It felt like I was there in person. I’m so grateful that you took me along for the ride. you really are a master of, as K.W. noted, word art.

    The depiction and pictures of the cremation ceremony was a fitting way to end on a final note. I can’t wait to go along with you on the journey to Bali next year.

    • says

      Bobbie Anne, it will be wonderful to show you Bali next year. I’m so glad you’re going to join us! I’ll be posting next year’s trip, hopefully by the end of July…

  13. Hollye Dexter says

    I love this ritual. It makes much more sense, and doesn’t leave the mourners clutching on to the past. Amazing journey, Laura! Loved it- thank you for taking me (virtually) with you.

  14. Judy says

    Laura–what a pleasure coasting via armchair on your Bali trip. I loved it and hope to join you one day. The images and word portrait you painted of the cremation ceremony made me weep. Peaceful travels & hugs, Judy

  15. Polly says

    Thanks for sharing these exciting adventures with all of us! It was nice to be able to read your insights and get a taste of what it’s all about. Safe travels home. P.

  16. Jodi Richardson says

    I have enjoyed reading the posts. Thanks for sharing and taking us along with you and your group on your journey. Safe Travels

  17. Lilith says

    Finally typed up a few Bali poems.

    Enjoy, Lilith

    PRACTICING YOGA IN BALI

    I wanted to come back to the same corner
    of this large ugly brown room
    where I had done my yoga yesterday
    because it was here
    that I noticed the tiny dull red ants
    wandering seemingly
    aimlessly about the floor around me
    as I sweated and stretched–
    inwardly whining
    outwardly heroically straining
    to achieve the widest stance
    the longest line of leg or arm
    that I had attained so far.

    The ants have built little brown mud homes here
    one–a two inch vertical mass
    not far from the corner of the support pillar
    the other inside the two inch diameter
    circular electrical socket
    midway between the floor
    and large window that fills most of back wall.

    I wanted to come back to this corner
    so I could leave a few bits of bread from breakfast
    for these hardworking little sisters
    who probably—unlike me—
    aren’t whining inside.

    Lilith Rogers
    July 26th, 2013

    FIRST DAY IN BEAUTIFUL BALI

    Swimming in the hotel pool just now
    I saw so many beautiful things—
    the sea before me
    the sun and the clouds
    above me
    the light on the water
    all around me.

    Then, too, there were the fronds
    on the tall palms
    surrounding the pool and me
    blowing busily in the breeze
    there’s the green grass
    dotted with orange clay pots
    filled with purple orchids
    the colorful birds and dragonflies
    flitting nearby
    the bright red leaves of the ti plants
    “blower” they call it here I’m told
    by the beautiful woman who just served me tea.

    And then there’s the young girl wading
    in the edge of the sea in front of me.

    I keep thinking of Karen Drucker’s sweet song
    “I’m so grateful, I’m so grateful
    gratitude above me, gratitude below me
    gratitude to the right of me, gratitude to the left of me
    Gratitude all around me”

    Yes, I’m so grateful to be here
    in this beautiful place
    at this beautiful moment.
    Lilith Rogers July 21st, 2013

    FIRST NIGHT IN BALI

    And what did I see
    the super full moon
    come rising right out of the sea!

    Round and bright
    first orange—then white
    shedding so much light
    she rivaled the sun.

    The sight reminded me
    of the last time I was
    in Hawaii
    just six months ago
    down at the eastern end
    of the Big Island
    I had arrived just in time
    to catch the sun setting red
    into the ocean on the west side
    of the lava’s edge
    the moon rising red
    through the volcanic vog from Kilauea’s outburst
    on the east.

    It was my first night there, too–
    first on that one of many previous trips.
    My son Noah had picked me up
    at the little airport in Hilo
    and driven me straight down there to the tip.

    Lucky me–magic happens everywhere I go.

    Lilith Rogers
    July 22nd, 2013

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