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Published: July 25th 2008
To fully experience Bali I was told I must attend a Balinese family cremation as the Balinese send their dead to the Nirvana realms with such a passionate show of love and creativity, so this was one thing I could not miss. Within twenty four hours of arriving into Bali I found myself stood in front of a grieving family home, in a strange village called Sangeh, which is north of Kuta and East of Ubud. I wondered who had died to give me this ultimate Balinese experience as no one would say. I was lucky to be invited into a fairly wealthy family home which was made up of many smaller apartments within one big courtyard, each family member lived in their own apartment and there was a series of temples in a sacred spot somewhere within the court yard.
The main building in the center of the court yard is called the casabo, this is where the women of the house give birth and nurse the child for three months after they are born. The casabo is also used to rest their dead this is until the village priest works out the best astrological time in their two
hundred and ten day calendar year to cremate the bodies, this can be held the very next day or in some cases four years from death, the body is buried then exhumed at the right auspicious time for cremation.
I noticed all the solemn kids from the school opposite were wearing white printed T-shirts with the image of a young boy named I.B Rama. My heart sank when I realised it was a twelve year old boy who had passed and was now giving me this Bali cremation experience. He had been killed in a motor bike accident three days before.
All his school friends were present and even though the Bali way to cope with death is not to cry and mourn but to celebrate the life and be happy, it was hard not to cry and even more mind bending to think about celebrating, as how do you celebrate the life of a boy so young? Within Bali Hinduism also called 'Agama Tirtha' the children who pass away do not reincarnate, their purpose is to be born to families to give them some deep soul meaning normally about living their lives, or its seen as a
The paternal rounds
the father holding the coffin that is circled 3 times.
teaching to pay back some karma or soul lesson experience, when children die they are then rewarded in Nirvana for completing this selfless journey.
Inside the family home, many people sat in silence, village dignitaries attended and were very much part of this ceremony. The music of live Gong Beri band played in the back ground, Rama's friends sat in groups, some in school uniform some in traditional sarongs, but all wearing tears. His family were each doing different rituals in different places, holy water was being sprinkled like rain, candles lit, prayers recited, dried rice swallowed or placed on foreheads and throats to give good insights and to be good to all others humans in deeds and in the spoken word. This family casabo held the body of the families’ eldest son, not twelve years ago he was born in this same exposed platform, now he is being laid to rest.
The ladies of the house were busy sorting out all the offerings to the gods of flowers, vegetables, rice, whole chickens, pigs and geese that would accompany them to the cremation grounds. A big hog skewered on a spit was to ward of laziness in the
next life, the duck was to give him wisdom in the next life and the chickens to guard against greediness in the next life. They prepared the special white blanket that was to be wrapped around Ramas body when he arrived at the cremation grounds, inside this white blanket were photos of him and his family, coins for wealth in the next life and little mementos from his life such as comic books, words he wrote and pictures he drew all ready to put with his body to burn.
I thought this interesting as if I had lost a child I would want to keep all these things, but then we in the west do not see death so up close and personal, we are hidden from its raw realities. I felt this method helps to say goodbye face to face and this confrontation helps to let go. The Bali Hindu way is to let it all go, he has gone, why hold on to material items it will not bring him back, but to us in the west it would be a reminder of our precious creation, these items would help with the long process of grief.
But, here they believe in cutting all ties now, so the soul can move on as they believe the more you mourn the soul of a loved one, the soul is then tied earth bound and cannot move forward, neither can the family move on with their lives.
The body was prepared in the casabo by priests, his father then brought the body to the front of the home, where locals helped to pull the body up into the top of the Bade. The Balinese spend night and day building a tall gold cremation 'Bade' tower that has up to nine steps to heaven but this depends on the wealth of the family on passing, Ramas Bade was grand in structure which oozed ritualistic creativity. Long lengths of silk cascaded from the top levels where the body was placed the silk fell down into the crowd and held out stretched for the entire journey to the cremation grounds. These lengths of silk are meant to guide the soul like a pathway, out of the body and up into Nirvana. Suddenly, the boy’s mother broke down; she was in the street screaming pure maternal grief for her
It all goes up in smoke
all Ramas belongings underneath.
dead son. My heart dropped to the floor with her.
For a while I put my camera in my bag and grounded myself to the floor, I wanted to console her, to put my arms around her and take all her tears to the ocean to wash them away. The sun was beating down and the sky was vibrant blue with the odd white fluffy cloud that glided through the skies, suddenly a big butterfly fluttered past me, it flapped its wings so gently but hovered around my shoulders. The butterfly took off in the bereaved mothers direction, amidst all her family and friends helping her to her feet, the butterfly rested on her leg for a few seconds, no one noticed it there but me, then it flew off up to the tower, again hovered then flew away, it was a special moment, my shaman training was serving me well, the mother had to be picked up off the floor and carried forward.
The priest was up high in the cockpit of the Bade chanting verses and blessing the soul of the boy. His job was to make sure the spirit of the boy stayed
inside the body, more importantly that the body in the coffin stayed inside the Bade tower, as the tower was a good five meters tall and all the village people carried the platform of the tower on their shoulders, there are no wheels on this thing, its driven by pure man power, the men staggered up village roads and path ways, wobbling upon curbs and grass verges, the tower dipped beneath electricity pylons and spun round in dizzy circles at cross roads, this was in order to confuse any evil spirits who were trying to steal the boys soul before cremation. Every village has its own cremation site, there is no such thing as a private burial here as everyone gets involved, and death and its grief are to be shared. The village had a lovely green field with a slight mound in the middle which was called Setra; this place was dominated by a centuries old Banyan tree that stood at the back of the field. The trees roots were thick and deep, mirroring the unity and history of its local people. The base of the tree was decorated with colored silks and baskets of floral and seed offerings
that delighted the local birds, its towering branches of ample lush green leaf offered shady protection for its lamenting town’s people from the blistering sun.
The body was carefully removed from the top of the tower, a small bird was set free from its cage that hung up high by the side of the coffin the symbolism freedom, and everyone cheered. The males of the family all heavy with tears carried the coffin three times around the final cremation stand. Following them were the females of the family including his mother who carried his white blanket that had all his memorabilia inside. His body was changed by three priests from his resting clothes into a new white blanket. Anyone could stand next to the coffin so Rama would never feel alone. First all the older kids had a look, the priests placed items all over his body then sprinkled holy water, then his friends from school stood around his body some were shocked at what they saw, some were talking to him like he was still there. I stood over his body, trying to hold myself together. One boy said it was OK for me to take a picture
of his friend.
The family placed all Ramas earthly belongings beneath his cremation stand, clothing, school books, games, bedding and a push bike. The flames were lit and a gas pipe placed at his feet and shoved deep into his right flank. The gas was turned on and the flames shot through to the sky like reversed lightning, the heat expanded in an invisible cloud, you could see the coffin breaking down into tiny fragments of charred nothingness, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, the outline of his body becoming visible through the flames, the gas was turned up, the flames roared, crackled, spat, and hissed, dust to dust. There were traditional ritual silk parasols placed either end of his body, one burned to a crisp straight away, the other was still intact when we left the site yet it endured the same intense heat as the other one.
The setting sun shone through the smoke which gave a great hue of heavenly light. His family were to wait until the ashes had cooled; they shared food specially prepared by neighbours and friends. After they were to gather the ashes and last remaining bones and prepare
them into a ceremonial bowl, or coconut shell, this is the final journey of purification. They take these ashes to a beach to scatter them into the sea water; this will complete his cycle of earthly body, twelve days after a cremation they will perform another ritual dedicated to the boy’s soul.
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