What if, upon your death, your family and friends spent a good chunk of their savings on a pile of fine furniture, art, and jewelry and then promptly set it ablaze, all in the sake of getting you through the pearly gates? Would that seem strange to you? If you’re from Bali, it would be strange not to.
On the Indonesian island of Bali, where Hindu traditions have persisted despite the conversion of the archipelago to Islam, funerals are carnivalesque affairs of pomp and colour. Unlike the Muslim majority, whose religious traditions ask for much simpler ceremonies, the Balinese cremate the departed in spectacular events that, while religiously orthodox, are anything but in terms of pageantry and reflect the influence of native animist and non-Hindu traditions.
So, what exactly is the Bali funeral ceremony?
Like here, the first step is to have a funeral, followed by interring the dead in a grave. At some point in the future, perhaps years later and when conditions are auspicious and enough money has been saved, local priests are consulted and give their blessings. Calendars are pored over and stars are carefully watched for favourable signs. It’s also a good thing if the local elite are planning a cremation, though I don’t know if this is a sort of heavenly piggybacking or the Balinese love of festivities. In any case, spiritual mediums are hired to channel the spirits and allow them to express their desires in real time, to their families, in a sort of haggling or bargaining process where loose ends are tied up. Then the bodies are dug up and brought to fresh air and prepared.
Meanwhile, preparations are in order for the showy side of the spectacle. The structures that will serve as artistic mobile funeral pyres need to be built. Often, they are of humbler size, in the shape of a bull or large palanquin, but their worth is deceptive. For average Balinese, the effort and resources that go in to a cremation ceremony can be quite high, and families that subsist on less than a dollar a day can splurge hundreds for the event; years of income can go up in smoke (pun intended). Modernity has done little to dent the tradition, with corporate sponsors sometimes sharing the expenses in exchange for advertising space. For royalty, the whole affair can and does become an extravagant holiday. A 2008 funeral of a Balinese prince had thousands of participants.
While finite resources limit how fancy the funeral processions of commoners can be (even when costs are split), some funeral pyres can be stupendous in their size and attention to detail. The multistory pagoda towers called bade are the epitome of funeral largesse and can only be afforded by the wealthiest, and it shows: built from a scaffolding of wood or bamboo overlaid with delicate paper and fabric, they can rise twenty to thirty meters in to the air and weigh multiple tons. Luxurious silks sewn with pearls are painted with bright, bold hues that span the colour spectrum, and the structures are festooned by garlands and feathers; golden ornaments and gold leaf are liberally applied. What appear like papier mache wings rise, stiffly and proudly, in to the sky. The smell of myriad incenses and herbs are in the air. Animal forms, anatomically flawless but stylistically alien to Western eyes, poke through.Since conventional animals aren’t enough, fierce demon heads reminiscent of Gothic cathedral gargoyles glare with glazed eyes and bared fangs at the assembled crowds.
As with all ceremonies, there is a symbolic side to things. The social rank of the deceased prefigure in the size of the bade, with increasingly important notables achieving higher structures with more levels, always built in odd numbers. Royalty reserve the right to the highest possible levels (11 tiers). Additionally, the bade represents sacred Mount Meru, the cosmological navel of the universe in Hindu mythology around which existence organizes itself. The middle tiers, representing the normal world, is where the body is placed. The levels below and above represent the underworld and heaven, respectively. Often, human remains are set in the model of a Garuda bird, a mythological creature that serves as mount to the god Vishnu.
If the body has been previously burnt (or, I’m guessing, incomplete for whatever reason). an effigy can be constructed as a stand-in. Like the rest of the ceremony no expenses are spared. In the book Making an Exit, writer Sarah Murray recalls witnessing a Balinese funeral ceremony and describes the details of one such model: “The effigy signifies the rebirth of the soul, so it must be made of materials that symbolize renewal and revitalization. Mirrors form the eyes, so they are clear and sparking, iron nails stand in for strong teeth, and fragrant flower buds become the nostrils.” Maybe a bit too gaudy for my tastes, but I wouldn’t mind going out like that.
When everyone has arrived, and the funeral pyres are ready, hundreds of pall-bearers participate in the lifting, hoisting them upon their shoulders. Then the procession starts and onlookers mix with the immediate and extended families of those about to be burned. There is singling and chanting. The procession continues until they reach their destination, usually a field or beach. Priests utter prayers and final rituals are completed. The reason underlying this joyful approach to what is a sorrowful undertaking is simple: the Balinese believe negative emotions hamper the dead’s ascendance in to the afterlife. That, and death is not final in a religion where reincarnation is one of the basic tenets of faith . As a result, people are encouraged to put a positive spin on things and remain cheerful, though I wouldn’t doubt there is as much weeping as there is celebrating.
The climax comes when and oil (and other combustibles) is splashed upon the funeral pyres and the matches are thrown. I’ve never seen the ceremony, but I can imagine the heat and light the conflagration gives off as the beautiful – but frail – structures go up in flames, body and all. A much more stirring account (with wonderful pictures included) can be found here. How long does the whole event take? Probably hours, since celebrations, gift giving, and feasting await afterwards. A final sendoff consists of scattering the ashes in a river or the sea. With obligations fulfilled, family and friends – and society – can return to their regular rhythms, content in knowing they’ve done their best to prepare their loved ones for what lies beyond.
The best part? You aren’t limited to one participation: it is common for already cremated individuals to participate again (via effigy) alongside kin or at the funerals of the more prestigious. Then the whole magnificent spectacle begins anew.
(P.s: Check out some pretty amazing bade pictures here )