Bali: Cremation Slide Show


This is a visual blog.  We have just been in Ubud, in Bali, and while we were there saw the cremation of three members of the royal family.  Below is a brief description of the event, but please, after you have read it, go to the link to our flickr site, open the “Bali Cremation” set, and play it as a slide show.

In Balinese culture a cremation is a very public and elaborate send off, and is so costly that even families as wealthy as this will hold bodies for over a year until the funds and the astrology are all aligned.  Multiple cremations are common, but must be of the same caste.

Public preparations started a week before the event, with the construction of enormous papier mache floats on a side street beside the royal palace.  First two pagoda-shaped towers were made (one of which was to hold two bodies), and then three massive black bulls. Each was constructed on a platform of thick green bamboo.  These would be carried by crews of 50 strong men on a procession of about a kilometer to the cremation ground.

On the day of the procession crowds started to gather in the morning, and the mood was festive.  Members of the family posed for pictures as a gamelan orchestra played in the audience hall beside the floats.  By early afternoon all the preparations were complete, and the floats – bulls first – set off down Ubud’s main street.  People lined the streets, including one young girl anxiously waiting with her iphone in her hand.  Each bull was followed by a gamelan orchestra and a crowd of onlookers.  But it was no sedate and stately procession.  The crew carrying the floats ran with their figure from side to side, sometimes even going backwards to fool any evil spirits that may be following.  Spectators had to be nimble to avoid getting crushed.  It required huge effort on the part of the bearers, and when the time came to turn the corner into the cremation ground the fire department was there to give them a welcome dousing with water.

When all three bulls had arrived, they were taken off off their bamboo rafts and hoisted with a great struggle onto the raised cremation platform.  Meanwhile the women of the families had been assembling at the site.  They had brought elaborate offerings, exquisitely arranged and carried on their heads, to accompany their relatives into the fire.  There was a moment of excitement when the towers arrived, partly because only a super-human effort from one side of the first crew prevented it from toppling over as it turned into the area. They were so tall – 20 m – that the power lines along the route had to be disconnected, and much of the town was blacked out.  The towers were pulled up to a tall platform with a ramp on one side, down which the coffins were carried.  The coffins were then paraded around the bulls, and as with the rest of the ceremony it was a celebration, and not a somber event.

As this was happening, the backs were hacked of the bulls, and set aside.  Then the bodies were taken out of the coffins, wrapped in white cloth, and one was placed in each of the bulls. The offerings from the women were then accepted by immediate members of the families, and piled on the bodies.  Then the black backs of the bulls were re-attached, and the platform was cleared of people.

In the old days, piles of wood would be heaped on the pyre.  Now it’s done with natural gas.  With the burners in place, the priest lit sticks of incense, handed it to family members, and the ignition was begun. This is where, visually, it got stunningly beautiful.  I kept as close to the fire as I could – there was no crowd control, and it was up to you to keep away from flying bits of burning embers.  The fire roared ferociously through the bulls.  When much of the idols had been consumed, bundles of straw offerings were thrown under the bellies, and the fire around the corpses kept hot.  Near the end, when the bellies had been burnt out, gas flames were directed on whatever remained.

While the bulls were still dramatically smoldering, it was the turn of the tower.  The fire started at the base raced through it until it was, well, a towering inferno.  In the end, the fires were finished surprisingly quickly, and the crowds, with little ado, started to depart and make their way home.  When all is cooled, the ashes will be gathered and sprinkled into the sea.

I thought the ceremony was a breath-taking insight into the Balinese attitude to life and death.  True, not everybody here can afford such a send-off, but as an expression of the ideal it was magnificent.

This is where you should go:  The bigger the srceen you have the better.