Mass Cremation in Bali

Balinese people aren’t stressed about much, but the one thing that can create overwhelming tension is the inability to afford to cremate your parents and family.  In the past, cremations have financially ruined poor and middle class families alike who by tradition must provide a suitable cremation ceremony for their loved ones which can cost thousands of dollars.  When you are a farmer earning hundreds of dollars a year…it could have meant selling your land or not putting your kids in school.

Our friends Greg, Esther and Alex with Darmawan's father waiting while the ceremonies go on.

Our friends Greg, Esther and Alex with Darmawan’s father waiting while the ceremonies go on.

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Fortunately, many Balinese villages have adopted the practice of mass cremations where all of the people who die over a five-year or so period are cremated at the same time.  This mass cremation helps because it allows richer families to subsidize poor ones and permits every family to perform their sacred obligations to their loved ones.

We were invited by our friend Darmawan to the village of Tangkas in the Klungkung Regency to participate in its mass cremation of 95 villagers who had died over the past five years.

Sarcophagus containing the bodies from one banjar in the village

Sarcophagus containing the bodies from one banjar in the village

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It was a very long but fascinating day.  Darmawan’s family had lost a young nephew who had died from drinking too much Arrak (palm brandy) five years ago.  His body had been buried for the past five years.  His remains were dug up just before the ceremony and placed in a white cloth for the ceremony.

offerings around the sarcophagus

offerings around the sarcophagus

Cremation represents two important actions. First, it is a physical act in which the five elements of the universe contained in a human body are released by cremation to return to the earth.

The fire begins

The fire begins

More importantly, cremation releases a person’s soul from his body to be returned to the circle of life and death (reincarnation) or to be released from the cycle by seeing the face of God (moksha).  In Balinese tradition, the ritual mechanism for doing this is through a water blessing.  Every person who was cremated was accompanied throughout the cremation ceremony by a woman of his family.

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In our friend’s case this was Puspa, Darmawan’s wife.  She rose at 8am to prepare the water offering from holy water provided by the priest. Just before the cremation, the priest sprinkled holy water from her offering onto the body of her nephew.  After the embers died down at 10pm that night, she carried the ashes to the river for the soul’s final journey back to the spirit world.

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