Arriving in Medahan Village, just South of Ubud, I was met by my Balinese friend Ketut. Stepping over gaping holes (and trying not to fall in one), I followed her to the temporary wooden shelves that housed the bones of the deceased. The bones had been exhumed from over thirty graves, cleaned and washed. They had then been wrapped in banana leaf and bamboo, and covered by a small woven mat (tika), made from pandanus leaf and covered with a special white cloth. Little tags hung from each shelf, displaying the name of the deceased and each head faced north.
A Balinese cremation ceremony is considered a public event and, surprisingly, the mood is far from sad. In fact, it’s unusual to see anyone shedding a tear. The Balinese believe the deceased are making their way to the next life, and as they don’t want the soul to be sad, the mood is light and it is on the whole, a joyous event.
When Ketut invited me to this cremation, I had jumped at the chance to be part of a vital cultural ritual and to learn how the Balinese say goodbye to their loved ones. Ketut kept apologizing, saying it was not going to be an elaborate funeral because the people in her village are low caste, which is the case for most of the population in Bali. These village cremations are done either every three years or five years, depending on each village and the priest’s interpretation of the best days according to the Balinese calendar.
Cremations are expensive affairs so holding a mass cremation reduces costs, which can run into thousands of dollars for each family. Every village has slightly different rites and rituals.
At around 4 pm the white bundles of bones were carefully carried to each of the funeral pyres. After a ceremony with chanting and prayers, the pyres were lit in unison and the bodies were burnt, all together.
The heat was ferocious and smoke obscured the sky. It actually felt like a glorious moment and, as I looked around, people were looking up and smiling, bidding a grand farewell to the spirits of their loved ones.
Cheerful vendors started firing up their satay stick grills and ice block vendors turned up the volume on their little music boxes to entice customers. As coloured balloons and plastic toys on string blew in the breeze, the ash fell around the village and excited bands of children created a very festive atmosphere.
Ketut explained to me that the next process was to collect the ashes, which would then be taken in a procession to the ocean. In the old days the whole village would walk, but now everyone squeezes into open trucks or takes their own cars. Another ceremony is held at the beach before the ashes are released, finally allowing the deceased to be free of this life. According to Balinese Hinduism, it is only after the five elements of air, earth, fire, water and space have been returned to the cosmos that the soul can detach itself from the body and be free.