There’s nothing more important in Bali than a cremation, the sacred rite of passage to set one free from worldly ties, and on to the next life.
If you’ve travelled to Bali you may have witnessed a grand cremation in a big town. Typically you see the final procession, with huge decorative towers and a larger than life size cow, both on bamboo platforms, carried by dozens of sarong clad men amongst thousands of people. It’s a crazy festive atmosphere, ending with a spectacular fire.
What you probably don’t see is the work behind the scenes making the complex offerings, carving masks, building the towers and effigies. It’s a huge effort, an entire community working day and night for up to a month.
It’s the biggest celebration of life and no expense is spared.
In poorer villages, cremations are planned every five years, allowing expenses and the work to be shared. Bodies may be buried for many years, giving families the chance to save up.
It’s a more humble ceremony, but no less important.
These are some random musings about Bali village life that came to me whilst I was immersed in this incredibly complex, ancient ritual over the last three weeks…..
Independence… leave it at home.
I hear the kukul, the wooden drum sounding out through the village. That’s the call to gather in the banjar to start the day’s work for the cremation ceremony.
Dressed in my sarong, kebaya, scarf, hair neatly tied back, I wander out to the front gate.
I see a steady flow of women walking down the road, a colourful parade of sarongs. Carrying coconuts and bags of rice, they stroll at a graceful pace, rushing is not the way to arrive.
A few years ago I would have thought nothing of walking in alone. As a fiercely independent person, I’m used to fronting up solo in any situation. Anywhere in the world.
I’ve finally come to terms with giving up that independent streak when it comes to village life. Striding solo into the banjar with confidence, in the style of my western life, could bring on all sorts of reactions…
Pity. “Poor girl she’s on her own. Doesn’t she have any friends?”
Disrespect. “Such arrogance to make a show of herself.”
Embarrassment. For me.
Standing out in any way during ceremonies is not the way to go.
I now get it.
I wait for some women to arrive at the gate, they welcome me and we walk in together.
Cultural faux pas avoided. I start the day in harmony with the way of the village.
Two long tables are the centre of activity. Complex offerings are being assembled by a group of 40 or so women. There’s a ‘factory line’ approach going on, albeit one that allows for randomness to find its way in.
There’s a hum of busyness, a constant chatter that breaks into raucous laughter every now and again.
Mums bring along their kids not old enough for school. They turn any spare space into a playground, creating games with bits and pieces of baskets and sticks. No one shushes them unless they start causing mayhem. Young babies are nestled in their mothers’ lap, oblivious to the noise, as their mothers juggle offerings and clamouring baby hands.
I have to remind myself that this ceremony is about cremation. The vibe is at odds with our typical western ways of saying farewell to those who have left us.
There are 18 bodies to be cremated. Many have been in the ground for 5 years or more. The painful stage of grieving has passed, what’s important is sending them off with everything they need for their next life.
Interestingly, during this cremation process I find myself rediscovering I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, described as ‘the single most important artist of Bali’. Watching excerpts of the award-winning film, ‘Lempad of Bali’ by John Darling and Lorne Blair, these messages put everything in context….
Balinese do not grieve unnecessarily, the continuous cycle of life is more important.
Everyone in the community is helping, it’s a sign of respect. They find the western habit of assigning a funeral to a professional barbaric. Everyone is able to contribute according to their talents.
We’re making thousands and thousands of offerings.
Deft hands are rolling rice dough into tiny intricate shapes, coconut leaves are woven into complex shapes, rice cakes are organised into piles ready to be bundled into the array of offerings.
I’m assigned simple tasks. I’m a beginner when it comes to weaving palm fronds into intricate shapes or bundling up piles of offerings with bamboo ties.
Sitting with a group of older women, wise in the world of offerings, they show me how to place combinations of rice dough pieces into palm leaves. Each piece has been sculpted into a variety of shapes – shells, leaves, fern fronds, flowers. There are rules on how they are combined and placed.
I follow their gentle leads, knowing they’re keeping an eye on my work, giving me a nudge when I mistake a shell for a leaf.
I’m starting to understand how cremations play their part in conserving the arts.
There’s no need to consult reference books, or to download a ‘how-to-video’ as we are prone to do these days.
Knowledge is passed on freely, with purpose. Corrections are more likely to be made with a cheeky comment than a disparaging remark.
I settle into a rhythm, shoulder to shoulder amongst the kebaya clad women.
The medics move in…!
A couple of days later, in the midst of the ceremony activity, doctors and nurses from Payangan Public Hospital arrive and set up a health check station. The ground is hastily swept, ready for two long tables and a handful of chairs.
Tape measure is taped to a pole. Scales set up on the steps. Blood pressure cuff and blood sugar machine on the table. A plastic tub of medication. One doctor has a stethoscope. ‘Clinic’ is ready to go.
The cremation preparation continues on as usual, ducking across to the ‘clinic’ is fitted in between jobs.
First step is getting everyone measured, weighed and the results noted down with their age and name. Next step is measuring blood pressure and blood sugar and if necessary being handed over to the doctor for further checks, medication and follow up appointments at the hospital.
There is an ‘order’ to the process, despite the scrum of people crowded around the table all day long. But it works. No one is missed.
Anyone who’s scared who’s scared for some reason to take their seat when their name’s called is hustled up. A chorus of support goes out, a supporting hand on their elbow when needed to guide them to the table when needed.
Every detail is scribbled on loose paper. There’s no personal medical history let alone centralised records in this process. It’s up to the individual to remember their last result, if there is to be any comparison to discuss. This is what public health looks like at village level.
The women urge me to join the queue. When I hold back, explaining that the service is probably not for “tamu’ (the local term for foreigners) they escort me to the table, declaring I’m part of the village.
Getting one’s blood pressure checked is always a good thing, so I join the melee. The nurse asks me if I know my typical pressure before doing the reading. The result puts a huge smile on his face. “Very good!!” No need to pass me on to the doctor. He reminds me to do regular checks and tells me to drop into the hospital when I’m in Payangan. I feel like I’ve been invited to his home. (maybe something to do with the fact that I’m dressed in a sarong and kebaya working as part of the village for the cremation)
By the end of the day everyone knows each other’s’ weight, blood pressure, blood sugar or minor ailment. Medication is compared, follow up doctors’ appointments discussed.
The process blows the lid on privacy. If you think your medical diagnosis is a private thing between you and the doctor, forget it. There’s not an ounce of confidentiality going on today.
As someone who’s organised many projects, I’m impressed with the ‘organisation’.
Loosely formed groups work on different activities at any one time. People move from one group to another when they feel like it, no one minds, they just shuffle up and let the newcomer in.
There’s a group of women, leading the daily tasks, organising supplies. True to Bali village life, no one person stands out as a leader. To an outsider it may seem like chaos, but beneath the daily melee I can see the productivity is amazing.
The kitchen fire goes all day and night. Hundreds of glasses of coffee are made daily. Food is cooked by the families of the deceased.
There’s not a director, a clipboard or a running sheet in sight.
I soon realise that numbers come into play for every object, every offering we make.
One afternoon is spent making more rice dough shapes. The word spreads… ‘we need 3,000’ but rather than a boss figure allocating how much each group should do, everyone just gets to it, filling banana leaf plates with 100 at a time.
As I’m a fail when it comes to creating delicate flower buds out of rice dough at a rapid pace, I’m assigned the job of counting in our group. That I can do.
The plates of 100 are passed on, when we’re close to 3,000 there’s some calling out of who needs what. The last of the rice dough is shared, plates are combined between groups and miraculously we all finish at the same time, nothing extra, nothing wasted. Co-operation at its finest.
Later I’m told that taking 20 days for this ceremony is a good result, other villages can take up to 50-60 days. Our village is well known for its commitment to traditional life. It’s a big deal, farms are left unattended for 20 days, daily income dries up as there’s no time to harvest and sell vegetables, time only for essential jobs such as feeding cows.
It’s not possible to perform a cremation, the most important sacred rite of passage, without the help of many.
Everyone donates their time for free to the families of the deceased. It’s an act of respect. One that is returned in kind.
Every night I can hear the sound of the gamelan playing in the Banjar. The men take over, building bamboo structures, weaving palm leaf baskets, shelling hundreds of coconuts.
A small crew of men play cards until the small hours, before sleeping on the floor until dawn, keeping the souls company.
Throughout the ceremony preparations, offerings are never left unattended. They too have spirits.
The final day arrives.
Different colour kebayas for the women and polo shirts for the men have been organised by each family group. Extended family from other villages start to arrive. There’s no extravagant towers or effigies, the remains of each body are wrapped in white cloth and offerings, carried down to the cemetery in a simple procession. The 18 bamboo vessels, filled with offerings, are ferried down on the back of small trucks.
The organised chaos continues. Bamboo structures are being built, blessings are taking place, offering are being shuffled around, incense fills the air.
Its hard for me to understand what exactly is going on, so I observe from afar, not wanting to intrude. The inner area is limited to just a few family members as there are so many people.
Its a long hot day, with a lot of waiting around in between activity, as is typical of every Balinese ceremony. Food stalls are set up, ice cream sellers drop by. The vibe is sacred, yet its also about celebration.
The day closes with each family taking the ashes in a coconut down to the river, accompanied by the whole village, trekking in the dark, for the final send off to the next life.
Exhausted everyone returns home. The souls are safe.