When I was 11 years old I visited Bali and witnessed aNgaben.
I don’t remember a lot, but my father did take a few pictures of theceremony:Overall a Ngaben is more likea celebration then a mourning ritual. The community and family knows that ifeverything goes well the soul of the deceased will go to a better place andthen return to earth with a better life. In the end everybody dies, theBalinese seem to know this better than anyone.The Balinese believe thatoccasionally the soul might not be able to leave this world because it is stillused to its previous life. If this happens, the soul might stay at its previoushouse to haunt the family, which is something no one wants to happen. This iswhy the Balinese try their hardest to confuse the soul to make sure it gets tothe realm of god. The rocking around of the bull and the tower, the loud musicand the tourists all contribute to this confusion.
The community also has tomake sure that the soul is not captured by demons. Balinese demons are slow andnot very smart, which makes it possible to outrun them. This is why the towernever passes in a straight line and is sometimes moved around in circles,demons are not very good with corners. In order for the deceased to be reincarnated, theymust be cremated. Ngaben, the Balinese cremation process, allows the soul ofthe deceased to leave its body and go to the realm of god. However, a Ngaben iscompletely different from western cremation ceremonies. Right after a person’sdeath the Balinese place the body in a temple facing the sea. The communitythen decides on the date of cremation.
Three days before the cremation, thebody is moved back to its former home. For the cremation process the Balinesebuild a tall pagoda-like tower, made of bamboo, flowers, silk and more. Thistower can be very expensive, which is why the height of the tower depends onthe income and class of the family.
The base of the tower is shaped like aturtle entwined in snakes, this symbolizes the foundation of the world. Duringthe ceremony the body is put in a coffin and carried towards the tower. A fewmen climb on top of the tower and lift the coffin about halfway up the structure.The tower is then moved towards the cremation side in a procession whileflowers are thrown around.
Some cremations also include a bull being rockedaround in front of the tower. When the cremation site is reached, the coffinwill be placed inside an even larger stationary bull, which is then lit onfire. The Balinese believe inreincarnation, which they call Punarbwaha. Just like Indian Hindus, BalineseHindus believe that the souls of the deceased will return to earth, but in adifferent body. Every time a person dies, their soul, or atman, is sent to therealm of god. But to stay in this realm the atman would have to reach moksa,which is the ultimate goal of the living. Once an atman has reached moksa, theywill have perfected their soul. But reaching moksa is not an easy task.
According to the Balinese, there are four paths leading to moksa. The firstpath is called Brahmacari. During this first period the person has to gain asmuch knowledge as possible. After that, the person will have to go throughGrehasta, which requires the person to get married without losing the knowledgegained during Brahmacari. The third path or period to moksa is Wanaprehasta. Thisstep is about leaving the secular world.
The last path is Bhiksuka. The onesthat have reached Bhiksuka have successfully left the secular world and areable to spread their knowledge. But reaching this path requires the person tobe completely cut off from earthly needs, which can be achieved by meditation.Because this step is so hard to complete, most atmans reincarnate and have totry again to reach moksa. Depending on their karma, the sum of all theiractions in the previous life, the atman will have a better life in its nextbody. Black clothes, white flowersand crying faces are what one would commonly expect at a funeral.
Westerncivilization often views death as loss. The person we once loved is no longerwith us. However, not all funerals are sad occasions. Balinese cremations arefilled with laughter, loud music and colourful flowers. Children are runningaround, people are chanting and few tears are shed.
Overall it’s a very happyoccasion, which I know because I’ve seen a Balinese cremation. How come thatthe Balinese seem to celebrate death instead of mourn it? To answer thisquestion one must first understand the Balinese concept of death.