A funeral in Sanur

Michael Johansen
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A box made of large green palm tree logs was on fire. Smoke rose from the top while a young man inserted metal rods into one side. The box stood about a metre tall, was less than a metre  wide and was two meters long. A hole at one end allowed air to feed the flames inside. The attendant was not stoking the fire. The rods were for another purpose: to suspend something above the flames. For a moment the man failed in his task as first one human leg and then another dropped into sight. Two bare feet became exposed through the hole, but by inserting a couple more rods the attendant was able to lever the limbs out of view. I was witnessing a “ngaben”, a Hindu cremation ceremony performed beside a sunny beach in the town of Sanur on the Indonesian island of Bali.

While Hindus the world over cremate the remains of their loved ones in order to allow their spirits to free themselves of their bodies, the specific ceremonies observed vary from country to country.

However, in all cases the bodies are burned with their feet pointing southwards and afterwards the ashes are spread onto a body of water, like a river or the ocean, to re-incorporate their elements into the wider universe.

Most Hindu people live in India (some 940-million of them) where the religion emerged more than four millennia ago. It spread around the world, including to the Indonesian archipelago where it became the predominant faith until superseded by Islam in the 1500s. Bali, however, remained largely Hindu and today more than three-quarters of the island’s population of almost four-million people observe Hinduism. As a result, cremations, which are forbidden for Muslims in the rest of the country, are common in Bali, performed publicly outdoors. While they are not tourist attractions, they nevertheless attract curious off-island visitors — such as myself.

Untimely death

The ngaben has many unique features. This one began a few days earlier following the untimely death of a young man.

The preparations for a cremation can actually take any amount of time and many sometimes involve a temporary burial, but in the case of this man less than a week had passed since his demise. After the family got their loved one ready for the ceremony (washing and dressing the corpse), he was carried to the Sanur beach in a flimsy wood-framed, cloth-covered coffin inside an elaborate tower called a “bade.”

A large procession, complete with music, accompanied the bade through the town’s streets on a winding path intended to confuse ill-intentioned spirits that might be following. Once at the beach-side the coffin was removed from the tower and the body from the coffin and the body was placed inside the log crematorium to be set alight using two large propane-fueled burners. (The coffin and tower were later burned on a separate bonfire).

The cremation itself took several hours, during which a small crowd of family members and others (the women dressed in bright colours and the men all in sarongs and black T-shirts) simply stood or sat nearby until it was over.

Once the cremation was complete the ashes were collected and placed in a bowl that was carried to a table already laden with various offerings. A priest stationed beside the table (an old man accompanied and assisted by an equally old woman) slowly dressed himself until he was fully wrapped in black, festooned with jewelry and crowned with a tall red and gold hat. To the slow ringing of a bell the priest conducted prayers and distributed some of the offerings to the now-seated family members who showed little grief, but instead seemed intent to see their loved-one off in good humour. When this stage of the ceremony was finished a second procession carried the remains the short distance to the shoreline where further prayers were offered before 20 or so of the mourners waded through the surf to climb aboard an anchored boat. The boat motored out towards the sea, but stopped short of a barrier reef. There the ashes were spread across the waters — there, as mentioned earlier, to be recombined with the waiting universe.

Michael Johansen is a resident of North West River, Labrador

Geographic location: Sanur, Bali, Indonesian island India North West River

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