Over the years, I’ve witnessed many cremation ceremonies in Bali, from one massive ceremony for a royal prince in Ubud years ago, to the smaller weekly cremations at a nearby temple. Often, you hear a cremation ceremony before you see it- a loud percussion band echos through the nearby streets, alerting all to the procession on its journey to the sea, down to the pura dalem, the temple associated with death. A special ancient instrument called a gambang is only played at cremation ceremonies. A large wooden xylophone with bamboo keys is struck by one band member holding two wooden hammers in each hand. Cremations are dramatic and colourful religious events, and westerners may attend if dressed correctly and maintain a respectful distance from the main family groups.
Last week’s ngaben, Balinese for ashes, was a well planned and anticipated event involving the cremation of around 500 bodies. A madeeng was held the day before the actual burning at the seaside temple. Thousands turned up for madeeng, with everyone dressed in their finest white and gold ceremonial outfits. Above a sea of white umbrellas, below 5000 people either marching or forming guard as it circled three times around the main streets, along the main Bypass road, and then back into the suburb.
A Balinese cremation can be extremely costly. It is important to put on a good show, to impress the spirits but also to maintain prestige in the family and community. For poorer folk who cannot afford $25,000 or more, group cremations are affordable but still very impressive. Bodies are buried for a period- often for two years or more- until the family can save up for a ceremony in conjunction with other families in the banjar or local community.
For foreigners who wish to attend Balinese cremations or preceding events, appropriate dress is essential. The dress code is simple. Women should wear a sleeved tshirt, shirt or lace kabaya, if you happen to have one, and on the bottom, a sarong, tied with a sash or scarf. Men should wear a plain cotton shirt and sarong. If not, long trousers are acceptable, along with a sash. It is important to observe the rituals from a distance and stay away from the actual burning ceremony, and generally not get in the way of the family. Attending a madeeng requires a similar dress code, though this event is not strictly religious, but does form part of the overall ngaben. Despite dressing for the occasion, you’ll still stand out as an oddity. I know Mr T always feels a little ill at ease in his funeral sarong- it’s never really tied properly, and he whips it off as soon as he is away from the ceremony. I wear a modern stretch fabric sarong that isn’t as comfortable as plain wrapped fabric in the midday heat, but at least it stays on and I don’t feel compelled to wear trousers beneath it. Being discreet, respectful and courteous to those around you goes a long way at a ceremony and makes up for your awkward appearance.
Having said, this, there are plenty of tourists who do the wrong thing, mostly through ignorance. Below, this bikini clad woman walks into a Balinese Temple area during a busy cremation ceremony. She continues on her path, determined to get her precious photo. Invariably, it is the European tourist who is completely ignorant and ethno- centric when it comes to Balinese culture, religious ceremony and dress code. For some reason, Europeans find it troublesome to don clothes after the beach. Photo taken, September 2018.