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.
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.