Posts Tagged ‘Balinese culture’

Death and Cremation in Bali

August 3, 2011

Since arriving in Bali on June 2nd I have been staying at Oka Kartini on Jalan Raya (main road) in Ubud. Oka is a beautiful, mature Balinese woman. What makes her unique is that she has white skin, unlike other Balinese woman who have brown skin. Oka and I have become very close friends, we love each other very much and she calls me her sister. I am very blessed to know her.

This family belongs to the Brahmin caste, the highest caste in Bali. They are very well respected in their community. On Friday July 22nd Oka’s husband Ida Bagus Rai died following a long illness and several hospitalizations. The family compound is the most important structure in the Balinese culture aside from the many temples where ceremonies are held … I am looking at a very big temple from my veranda as I type this. For 12 days the cloth-wrapped body of Ida Bagus Rai laid in state on dry ice in the family compound, which is situated on the grounds of Oka Kartini. (I know it can be confusing, but Oka Kartini is both the name of a woman and the place where I am staying.) His body was behind curtains on a veranda and even though I visited Oka each of the 12 days, I had never seen the body. Every day more people came to pay respects to Rai. His body could not ever be left alone, so every night there were men guarding the body.  I unwittingly went back there one night to see Oka and walked into 40 or 50 men who were busy gambling. I did a quick about-face and went to visit Oka in her room.

I was invited by Oka to attend the family gathering in the compound yesterday morning. I appreciated receiving her invitation, even though I had definite trepidations because I’ve never been to a cremation. My stomach was feeling queasy about the whole thing. But I accepted Oka’s generous invitation and when I arrived in the compound there were already at least 200 people, drinking tea, eating special Balinese treats, and chatting away. The women in this family are so beautiful and they really know how to dress. I think I would immediately recognize a female relative of Oka’s by the very classy way they dress (see photo).

The time finally came to take Rai’s body off the pavilion where it had been for 12 days and bring it down to a structure that was at ground level. His sons carried his body down and put it on the structure. His body was still wrapped in white cloth. The Balinese priest who was there to pray and give blessings to the body stood by while the family unwrapped Rai’s body. At first I was apprehensive, but I became open to the sacredness of what I was witnessing, I approached the body and began to take photos. I had never before seen a body that was dead for 12 days and my eyes were wide with wonder. When all the cloth was removed, close family members (Oka and their five children) stood on the structure surrounding the body on all sides and gently washed the body with soap and water. They then placed many frangipani flowers on the body and the priest began the blessing ceremony. The priest wore beautiful jewels and was dressed in elegant Balinese robes and headdress. I was very impressed. He then began saying prayers and anointing Rai’s body with holy water. At this time, Rai’s grandchildren came close to their grandfather’s body and sobbed. It was so evident to me how much they loved him. I wanted to take each one of them in my arms and soothe their little aching hearts. They are so beautiful. After this blessing ceremony was over, Rai’s body was wrapped again in cotton and family members came up to him and gave him gifts including money, which would go with him and be torched. His body was then wrapped in other materials and tied down. His sons then carried him back to the veranda where he had been for 12 days and family members went up and said their final good-byes.

The body and the burning structure were then carried across the street to the cemetery area of the temple. As it grew closer to the time of burning and I watched the men setting up the torches with propane, a profound feeling of blessings came over me. The fear was gone. It was okay that the body was going to be burned because of all the love and blessings that had been bestowed on Rai that morning. Suddenly there was a huge burst of flames directed at the structure with Rai’s body on it. The men who were doing the torching were careful to contain the flames, running back and forth and adjusting the level of propane they were burning. I was awestruck. I have never seen anything like this. Ever. The next thing I knew there I was within 7 feet of the burning structure taking photos. I watched as Rai’s body became ash and his lower extremities fell into the flames. I stood silently, with my hands in prayer position, and thanked God for the honor I was given to be there with this beautiful family at this time.

Everyone came back to Oka Kartini where there was so much delicious food. This whole day had been a beautiful experience, truly a day of celebration. I became aware of the deep spirituality of the Balinese people, especially around the issues of death and cremation. This experience has changed my feelings a lot. I am no longer afraid of dying and if I am to be cremated, I pray that it will be a beautiful experience for my loved ones. The soul of Rai will soon be reincarnated into a new baby in the family and the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation continues.

My deep gratitude goes to my beloved Oka Kartini for including me in this very sacred and profoundly personal experience, one which I will never forget.

I have attached some photos from today to this blog entry and I have sent you the URL to all photographs which I took on this very auspicious occasion.