Life and Death in Bali

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.

Sapi’s last day. This cow has had a very good life. It is his last day before being sacrificed.

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.

The ugly tourist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 thoughts on “Life and Death in Bali”

  1. I sailed along reading in a peaceful eddy of yellow and white… got brought up sharp by the aberration at the end. Would I, or most people go around in their underwear… rhetorical question. But there are a few. Clueless in so many ways. Freedom is one thing, wise choices for oneself and others are quite another, and thoughtlessly impinging on a religious and life rite… well, imagine what would happen here if bystanders or someone turned up at a chapel, etc dressed carelessly.

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    1. I know what you mean Dale about sailing along. I had this rather academic approach to the whole subject of cremation and then let it drop, as my brain seems a bit too overheated here. I really had to think about that bizarre ending too. I’ve been sitting on that photo for a year, but it needed to be aired, minus a long preaching on the subject. There is a tendency among some Europeans, in particular, Russian, Italian, and Spanish, to bring their beach dressing behaviour from their own countries to Bali. In Europe, the lido and the beach front restaurants are still viewed as the beach. Elsewhere in the world, beach clothes are only seen on the sand, and then one covers up, more or less. There is a real obsession with tanning and Europeans like every crack of their body coloured before they go home. In temple grounds this is naturally very offensive, but it’s also seen in the walkways, streets near the beach and little restaurants. Balinese don’t like this but they say little, as they believe these people lack education and refinement.

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  2. Thank you for the promised story and the photographs to complete what I had learnt about the acceptance of death, continuity of life after and the celebration in white and gold. The end part jarred but methinks was necessary . . . some visitors may think they are ‘there’ but, in reality, have never arrived . . . thank you, Fran !

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    1. Yes, the ending was a little jarring for sure. It came from another long preachy piece I have been writing for a year and decided to abandon. So I just slipped it in. I love that expression, ‘some visitors may think they are ‘there’ but, in reality, have never arrived . . . ‘

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    1. Hi Louise, on the actual day, the locals wear a variety of colours ..the men tend to layer in dark colours, the second sarong often very ornate. I’ve noticed that women often come in group colours, with matching lace kabayas. Tourists can wear any colour, as they as are not really part of the event. However, if you knew the person and were involved, you would need to wear the colour of that group, and sit with them. White and yellow/gold are used also for other purification ceremonies. Hope this answers the question.

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  3. That’s so interesting, Francesca, and the colours, umbrellas, flowers in the hair are so beautiful. Rituals such as that, i think, are a healthy thing. To share a funeral ceremony also, i would think, would be quite cathartic – a shared grief and honouring – as well as being very practical. It is odd that people who have sufficient education to earn sufficient money to travel should display such ignorance of what is appropriate in another culture.

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  4. In the 80s, like yourself Bali was the to-to destination at the time. I attended many cremation ceremonies. My Balinese friend kitted me up for the events. However, I remember being told that the body was buried then exhumed on the birthday of the deceased before cremation. Is this still a tradition? I’ve never heard of the “saving up” scenario. Perhaps I’ve been living in ignorant bliss, but I’ve shared that story far and wide. Please research it for me Fran. I’d hate to be known to tell a lie!!!.
    Peter Qld

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    1. The bodies are exhumed just before the cremation date. The date of the cremation is chosen by the priest, who consults various astrological calendars and has nothing to do with the birthday of the deceased. Mass cremations are important for the poor, saving up for a cremation may take many years. Birthdays are not an important part of Balinese celebratory life. Cremations are hideously expensive but necessary so that the soul, or atman, can be released and eventually reborn.

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  5. An interesting story Francesca. I think I may have mentioned that where we stayed a few weeks back was in the middle of ‘suburbia’, surrounded by houses and tiny local businesses. It was far more enjoyable and relaxed and we saw small windows into people’s lives as we walked along.

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  6. A very interesting and informative post. I had no idea they had such ceremonies. I guess we have ugly tourist from all walks of life in all parts of the world. These days, ours seem to be the young (and some old) believing there Instagram images and ratings are more important than respecting a culture.

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