Ngaben ceremony, the big cremation
Don’t let them fool you. Balinese people are not happy when a family member or a good friend passes away. They already had their portion of crying before the person involved died, similar to you and me. And the grieve is not over yet.
But after that tragic occurrence family and friends will try to withhold the tears, at least in public. One of the reasons is tears will keep the spirit earthbound and after all the spirit of the diseased is still somewhere around. He or she will reincarnate into the family when all the rituals are conducted properly. By burning the body the material corpse returns to the five basic elements of nature: fire, water, earth, wind and space. The soul can depart to its god and reincarnate into the family.
Depending on the time of year in the Balinese calendar a suitable day will be chosen for the big cremation ceremony. More important however is the financial status of the family. An average cremation costs a small fortune, so usually the people are saving their money for many years until they have enough to perform a proper Ngaben, as the big cremation ceremony is called. Sometimes the big cremations has to be postponed for religious reasons or because a cremation ceremony cannot be held in that certain period of the year.
In the meantime the family has two possibilities to give the diseased a temporarily resting place. They can bury the body in the cemetery. When the amount of money needed is sufficient for a big ceremony the body will be excavated, the bones cleaned and blessed and purified by the fire the soul is finally free to go.
Another option is to “bury” the body in the fire, a simple cremation without much ceremony, meant to avoid unearthing the remains of the deceased in the future. The diseased can not yet reincarnate and waits as a human-shaped spirit in the gardens at the foot of the Besakih complex on the Gunung Agung.
Basically all cremations follow the same patterns, although it may slightly differ from village to village. The body is ritually washed, placed in a coffin and put in a wada, -a tower, made of bamboo, paper, cloth, tinsel, flowers and anything that will contribute to this colorful spectacle. This wada is built on a bamboo mesh work. The whole construction will be carried to the cremation field. If there had been a "small cremation" before, the body is personalized by a wooden tablet, engraved with a human figure. During a solemn cleansing ceremony this alternative body is washed and wrapped in holy linen and coton, until it has almost the volume of a real body.
On the way to the cremation field the coffin construction will be turned, twisted and shaken to confuse the spirit of the diseased so it will not return to the family house to haunt the inhabitants. Also evil spirits are supposed to get mixed up by all the movements and antics of the group carrying the coffin, to prevent them to influence the family and the spirit of the diseased. Family and friends follow the procession by foot, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra to help the spirit to find its way to heaven.
The coffin is taken out of its decorative casing and placed in a white or black bull, a red or black lion or in a simple wooden construction or on a table. With kerosin the pyre is set on fire. On a separate pyre all items used by the diseased in the last period of his/her life as well as the items used in the ceremony will be burned . The ash of the body is brought to the sea. After a last ceremony the ash together with the offerings will start the journey to eternity.
Sometimes there is an opportunity for poorer families to join in the funeral of a wealthier individual or a high caste person. That is really a spectacular event. Nowadays in many villages the people join forces and money to organize a group cremation, a masal. The effect for the souls is the same, but the expenses are considerably less with more grandeur.