To fully experience Bali, I was told to attend a Balinese family cremation as the Balinese send their dead to the Nirvana realms with such a passionate show of love and creativity this was one thing I could not miss. Within 24 hours of arriving into Bali, I found myself in front of a grieving family home, in a strange village called Sangeh, which is north of Kuta and East of Ubud. I wondered who had died?
My boyfriend kept in custom and dressed in a sarong which helped him blend in with the entire village of men who all wore these amazing black, brown, gold batik sarongs along with Balinese matching head scarf’s and funky western t-shirts. I was lucky to be invited into a fairly wealthy family home which was made up of many smaller apartments within one big courtyard, each family member lived in their own apartment and there was a series of temples in a sacred spot somewhere within the court yard.
The main building in the centre of the courtyard is called the Casabo, which is where the women of the house give birth and nurse the child for three months after they are born. The Casabo is also used to rest their dead. This is until the village priest works out the best astrological time in their 210-day calendar year to cremate the bodies. This can be held the very next day or in some cases four years from now, where the body is buried and then exhumed at the right auspicious time.
I noticed all the solemn kids from the school opposite were wearing white printed T-shirts with the image of a young boy named I.B Rama. My heart sank when I realized it was a 12-year-old boy who had passed and was now giving me this Bali cremation experience. He had been killed in a motorbike accident three days before. All his school friends were present and even though the Bali way to cope with death is not to cry and mourn but to celebrate the life and be happy, it was hard not too cry and even more mind bending to think about celebrating, as how do you celebrate the life of a boy so young?
I was told that in Bali Hinduism also called ‘Agama Tirtha’ the children who pass away do not reincarnate, their purpose is to be born to families to give them some deep soul meaning, a teaching to pay back some karma or soul lesson experience. When the children die they are then rewarded in Nirvana for completing this selfless journey.
Inside the family home, many people sat in silence, village dignitaries attended and were very much part of this ceremony. The woeful music of the live Gong Beri band played in the background, Rama’s friends sat in groups, some in school uniform some in traditional sarongs, but all wearing tears. His family were each doing different rituals in different places, holy water was being sprinkled like rain, candles lit, prayers recited, dried rice was swallowed, placed on foreheads and throats to give good insights and to be good to all others humans in deeds and in the spoken word. This family Casabo held the body of the family’s eldest son, and not 12 years ago he was born in this very open aired room, which he is now being laid to rest.
The ladies of the house were busy sorting out all the offerings to the gods of flowers, vegetables, rice, whole chickens, pigs and geese that would accompany them to the cremation grounds. A big hog skewered on a spit was to ward of laziness in the next life, the duck was to give him wisdom in the next life and the chickens to guard against greediness in the next life. They prepared the special white blanket that would be wrapped around Rama’s body when he arrives at the cremation grounds, inside this white blanket were photos of him and his family, coins for wealth in the next life and little mementos from his life such as comic books, words he wrote and pictures he drew all ready to put with his body to burn.
I thought this interesting if I had lost my child, I would want to keep all these things, but then we in the West do not see death so up close and personal, we are hidden from its realities. I felt this method helps to say goodbye face to face and this confrontation helps to let go. The Bali Hindu way is to let it all go, he has gone, why hold on to material items it will not bring him back, but to us in the west it would be a reminder of our precious creation, these items would help with the long process of grief. But, here they believe in cutting all ties now, so the soul can move on as they believe the more you mourn the soul of a loved one, the soul is then tied earth bound and can not move forward, neither can the family move on with their lives.
There were halves of hard-boiled eggs lying on Banana leaves for guests to eat, a symbol of new life. Plastic cups full of water were being passed around, these were small yet necessary details to get through the hot emotional day. Ramas parents were visibly upset which set me off. The body was prepared in the Casabo by priests and his father then brought to the front of the home, where locals helped to pull the body up into the top of the ceremony Bade.
The Balinese spend night and day building a tall gold cremation ‘Bade’ tower that has up to nine levels or steps to heaven but this depends on the wealth of the family on passing, Ramas Bade was grand in structure and oozed ritualistic creativity. Long lengths of silk cascaded from the top levels, where the body was placed the silk fell down into the crowd and is held out stretched for the entire journey to the cremation grounds. These lengths of silk are meant to guide the soul like a pathway, out of the body and up into Nirvana.
Suddenly, the boy’s mother broke down; she was in the street screaming pure maternal grief for her dead son. When I saw her drop to the floor in this state my heart metaphorically leapt out to catch her. I thought of my ten-year-old niece and my two nephews, my goddaughter in Spain and all my friends’ children around the world, the thought if anything happened to any of them I’d be on that floor with her. What do you say to a mother who is cremating her pre adolescent son?
For a while I put my camera in my bag and grounded myself to the floor, I wanted to console her, to put my arms around her and take all her tears to the ocean to wash them away. The sun was beating down and the sky was vibrant blue with the odd white fluffy cloud that glided through the skies, suddenly a big butterfly fluttered past me, it flapped its wings so gently but hovered around my shoulders.
The butterfly took off in the bereaved mothers direction, amidst all her family and friends helping her to her feet, the butterfly rested on her leg for a few seconds, no one noticed it there but me, then it flew off up to the tower, again hovered then flew away, it was a special moment, but the mother had to be picked up off the floor and carried away.
The priest was up high in the cockpit of the Bade chanting verses and blessing the soul of the boy. His job was to make sure the spirit of the boy stayed inside the body, more importantly that the body in the coffin stayed inside the Bade tower, as the tower was a good five meters tall and all the village people carried the platform of the tower on their shoulders, there are no wheels on this thing, its driven by pure man power, the men staggered up village roads and path ways, wobbling upon curbs and grass verges, the tower dipped beneath electricity pylons and spun round in dizzy circles at cross roads, this was in order to confuse any evil spirits who were trying to steal the boys soul before cremation.
Every village has its own cremation site, there is no such thing as a private burial here as everyone gets involved, and death and its grief are to be shared. The village was called Sangeh and it has its own cremation grounds, it was a lovely green field with a slight mound in the middle, which was called Setra. A grand old Banyan tree that stood at the back of the field dominated the Setra. The trees roots were thick and deep, mirroring the unity and history of its local people. The base of the tree was decorated with coloured silks and baskets of floral and seed offerings that delighted the local birds, its towering branches of ample lush green leaf offered shady protection for its lamenting loyal people from the blistering sun.
The body was carefully removed from the top of the tower, a small bird was set free from its cage that hung up high by the side of the coffin to symbolise freedom, everyone cheered. The males of the family all heavy with tears carried the coffin three times around the final cremation stand. Following them were the females of the family including his mother who carried his white blanket that had all his memorabilia inside.
Three priests changed Rama’s body from his resting clothes into a new white blanket. Anyone could stand next to the coffin so Rama would never feel alone. First all the older kids had a look, the priests placed items all over his body then sprinkled holy water, then his friends from school stood around his body some were shocked at what they saw, some were talking to him like he was still there.
One boy said it was OK for me to take a picture of his friend; I was not the only one, as everyone had digital cameras and mobile phones poised. I noticed old coins were placed all along his chest cavity where the autopsy stitches were still fresh. He had small mirrors and petals placed on his eyelids, this was so the soul can ask for future foresight.
The family placed all Rama’s earthly belongings beneath his cremation stand, the final item placed upon his clothing, school books, games, bedding and push bike was his prized big black kite. The flames were lit and a gas pipe placed at his feet and shoved deep into his rib side. The gas was turned on and the flames shot through to the sky like reversed lightning, the heat expanded in an invisible cloud which slightly scorched skin of all near by, you could see the coffin breaking down into tiny fragments of charred nothingness, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, the out line of his body becoming visible through the flames, the gas was turned up, the flames roared, crackled, spat, and hissed.
There were traditional ritual silk parasols placed either end of his body, one burned to a crisp straight away, the other was still in tact when we left the site yet it endured the same intense heat as the other one. It was now 5 pm and the setting sun shone through the smoke, which gave a great hue of heavenly light. His family were to wait until the ashes had cooled, they would share the foods specially prepared by neighbours and friends.
After the family was to gather the ashes and last remaining bones and prepares them into some bowl, or coconut shell, this is the final journey of purification. They take these ashes to a beach to scatter them into the seawater, as this will complete his cycle of earthly body. 12 days after a cremation they will perform another ritual dedicated to the boys soul. This would be held in a place called Mother Temple, which I think can be anywhere that is sacred to the family as most people have their own temples in their property courtyard, as I mentioned before. This ritual assists the soul to be reborn to God, and it is asked that God forgive the soul for any wrong doings he may have committed while alive.
This is where God decides where and if you will be reborn, I feel that Rama would have earned his angel wings and would be given the right to fly around like a beautiful butterfly forever more in Peace.
I shall never forget that day, the emotion, the loss, the grief, the colors, the sounds, the smell, the heat, the ritual, the beliefs, the community, the feeling, and the love.