Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Different Kind of Burning Man

Having just read “Island of Bali”, a classic on Balinese culture published in 1946, we were able to appreciate some of the nuances behind the cremation of three men that took place in Ubud last week. To our na├»ve eyes, the ceremony we saw paralleled what we learned from that text, even though it was written more than 60 years ago.

Tourists and strangers are welcomed at what Westerners would consider a somber event. In Bali, though, a cremation is a joyous occasion where participants play music and cavort through the streets. The spectacle feels more like a party than a funeral because this is the day when the soul will be released to heavenly realms and the day that the family’s obligations to the deceased will end. Since the death, family members had been required to perform daily rituals to transfer the soul to an effigy, “clean” it of impurities attained during life, and protect it from evil spirits.

On cremation day, a huge procession moves through the streets from the final resting place of the body to the cremation grounds. First come elegantly dressed family members carrying the effigy that contains the soul. These are followed by an enormous and beautifully constructed animal-shaped coffin - on this occassion, bulls - carried by dozens of men. Although hollow at this point, the coffin is where the body will be placed prior to cremation. And finally comes an elaborate tower consisting of three sections – the earthly realm at the bottom, a middle limbo that holds the body, and heavenly tiers above, the number of which is governed by strictly-observed cultural rules.

Once the procession reaches the cremation grounds, rituals are performed over a few hour period that eventually result in the body - and the soul - being moved to the coffin where everything is finally set aflame. Unlike India, where wood is used and cremation can take 3 to 4 hours, the three cremations we witnessed were over in less than an hour. The Balinese use kerosene lighters to torch the coffins, and they tease the bodies should they take too long to burn. Firemen are on the scene to safeguard the situation and the thousands of viewers.

On the surface, the Balinese funerary practices are significantly different from what we observed in Sulawesi a few weeks ago, but what struck me were the similarities between the underlying values – the extraordinary concern regarding safe passage of the deceased, a willingness to virtually bankrupt a family to cover the cost, an expectation that hundreds if not thousands should attend, and the high level of familial participation.

When the cremation ends at sunset, the families gather whatever material remains. They wrap it with great care, carry it to the nearest water source – a river or the sea – and release the final elements back to the earth from which they came.