Donna Sue Robson is a freelance writer and essayist specialising in the arts, Latin dance; & natural & alternative therapies for people and pets. Check out her own energy-healing consultancy and boutique natural products at www.jamienatural.com
Published October 16th 2016
Balinese Cremation Ceremonies-Honoring the Sacred
I was first invited to a cremation service that traveled through the streets of Ubud, Central Bali, almost 20 years ago. At the time I was reticent to attend, fearing that I was intruding on a very scared and personal time. What I thought was 'respect' was in fact my own cultural bias about what funerals, cremations and even community mean, for in the West the idea of what is 'sacred' aligns with 'privacy' and funerals are associated with grief.
Attending a public Balinese cremation is a not-to-be-missed and life-affirming experience.
Ubud villagers insisted that I was to be a part of the cremation celebration (for indeed, that is what it is) a celebration of life, and life is being a part of a community. It is actually respectful to attend and to bear witness to a person's life and the contribution that they have made to village life. Large parades announce high social status and the important contribution of the person whose life is being celebrated.
The parade and festival is an all-sensory extravaganza. All-male groups are striking in traditional dress and converge to play gamelan melody and counter melody at both carefully regulated intervals or oftentimes, as improvised cacophonies. The parade leaves no road untouched. All villagers know of the event and all join in to pay homage. Behind the musicians is an enormous black bull, which eventually encases the coffin, and as it is set on fire, the body is released into a metal vessel from which it is later committed to the Earth, as ashes. Holy men and structural attendants ride with the bull, as well as family and anointed personal attendants. Throughout the ceremony, women dressed in pure white, as well as bright ceremonial colors, make offerings and keep incense alight.
The sacred bull helps to transport the body to the next life. It offers honor and protection.
The Balinese cremation ceremony made an even bigger impact on me in 2016. Again, Ubud was the sacred ground, and a member of the Royal family had died suddenly. I had just arrived at Tebesaya Cottage in Central Ubud, to be met with an immediate invitation from Komang and her family to watch the cremation. The ceremony had already paraded through the streets of Ubud, and now over 2,000 people had gathered in the civic square to watch the final moments. One woman to whom I was talking, had walked for 10 hours to arrive at the final cremation site. It seems that all Balinese are born with this strong civic bloodline.
Again, an enormous jet-black and heavily adorned bull strode the funeral scaffolding, for the male bull protects the chief as he passes over to the next life. Even the process of getting the coffin, into the bull's back was an operation and a half and cause for reflection: the time involved, the construction, artistry, expense, and sacred design detail for which Balinese Hindus are famous, pronounces the esteemed position of the deceased. As I stood in random solidarity with this community at another poignant moment in their history, it raised personal issues about my own life, and indeed, of life itself.
All cremation preparations are meticulous and inclusive. The people of Ubud donned traditional dress and finery, and united as a community to honor the life and family of a respected leader
The visual enormity of this ritual and celebration is a triumphant record of endings and beginnings, as well as an announcement of the interdependence of humanity. In stark contrast to the private nature and personal grief of Christian or Western funerals, the Balinese cremation ceremony is a spiritual affirmation of our inter-connectedness, and is a testament of our common milestones in life. Endings impact on our life, and help us to change course, or even our perspective. To attend and even be a small part of such an affirmation service crosses cultural boundaries and unites communities through an appreciation of our shared histories, lives and legacies.
Attending a ceremony helps you to reflect on your own endings and beginnings in life. The release, forgiveness and momentum to start again, is infectious.
How to find information? If there is a cremation celebration in Ubud and you are allowed to participate, then you will be invited. Accept graciously. If in doubt, ask and always abide by dress and behavior etiquette.
Who can go?
Everyone- if you are invited, be part of it and witness a very life-affirming spiritual ritual. Both men and women need to cover knees with a sarong and even if you are wearing pants, drape a sarong around your shoulders as it is a mark of respect and humility.
Hindu, Balinese or uniquely Ubud?
Even though the cremation ceremony follows Hindu tradition, this is also a uniquely Balinese ritual. In fact, I have only ever seen two cremation services of this magnitude and both were in Ubud, Bali.