Balinese Cremation Ceremony

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“Stop!”

A man dressed in a sarong and black t-shirt interrupted our only source of fresh air. We were exploring the small island of Nusa Lembongan on a tiny motorbike, taking in the breeze on this suffocating day. Many people were gathered around him, all looking in the same direction. I cut the engine and parked the bike on the side of the road. We had stumbled onto a Balinese cremation ceremony.
Nusa Lembongan is considered the island of evil spirits by the mainlanders, but for the residents and the tourists alike, it’s a beautiful and calm place, surrounded by pristine beaches and amazing cliffs. We had left our bungalow in a quiet and remote part of the island and were trying to find our way into “the village”, where the small shops and restaurants were located. We never made it. This stop was pure luck.
The cremation ceremony is a rare and very special event for the Balinese people. First, it has to happen on an auspicious day, calculated and determined by priests using one of the most complex calendars in the world. Secondly, the cost for the family of the deceased is so high that they almost always have to bury the dead for many months (sometimes years) before they have enough money for the ceremony.
Foreigners are more than welcome to join and enjoy the spectacle. Actually, the day is filled with joy and smiles more than tears and mourning. It’s a celebration after all.
The ceremony is quite complex and takes almost all day. The dead, which were unearthed and wrapped in leaves and a white shroud, are brought and piled into what resembles a tower carried by the townspeople. The tower is high enough that power lines need to be lifted with long branches.
A few weeks before the ceremony, special totems were built by specialized craftsmen in order to represent each deceased. This is where it gets pretty expensive for the families. The depicted animal is determined by the person’s caste and the colors are very vibrant. The bulls, elephants and other winged horses wait on a huge platform made of tree trunks and palm leaves.
The high tower containing all the bodies is carried around in circles and shaken as strongly as possible. This is to confuse the soul so that it doesn’t find its way back from heaven. After a while, the bodies are taken out and inserted one by one in their respective totem. The whole thing is then lit up and the fire rages on for hours. The pyre even broke down at some point.
When everything is over, the ashes are scattered in the ocean. It’s time for the soul to ascend and rest before its next incarnation.

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