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A Happy Occasion With Fanfare and Fire : In Bali, the Dead Are Sent Away in Style

July 06, 1986|JEREMY CLIFT | Reuters

DENPASAR, Indonesia — When Bali cremates its dead, it does so with style.

On a day of gold and offerings, fanfare and fire, thousands gather in a carnival atmosphere to send off the dead.

Food vendors and spectators line the streets as the funeral procession winds its way to the cremation grounds, where the air is heavy with smoke and ash from bamboo fires.

In Balinese culture--a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism--it is a happy occasion. It represents the liberation of the soul, allowing it to be reunited with the Supreme Being.

Religion Pervasive

Religion pervades every aspect of life on Bali, a lush volcanic island whose culture contrasts markedly with neighboring Java, which is predominantly Muslim. From birth to death, the life of a Balinese is guided by religious rites and festivals. Cremation is one of the most important.

At the latest mass funeral in Bali's capital, Denpasar, the entire city turned out for the cremation of the region's last rajah, 90-year-old King Ida Cokorda Ngurah Gede Pemecutan.

About 600 other bodies were also cremated on the same day in a spectacular ceremony on a burial site where families gathered in their finest clothes amid palm trees to present offerings and see off the dead.

Some dead relatives are dug up from their graves and their skeletons polished so they can be burned at the same time as the king.

Budget Cremation

To cut the enormous costs of cremation, some Balinese of lesser rank temporarily bury their dead and wait for the cremation of someone of wealth so that they can join in a larger ceremony on an auspicious day.

Cremation is one of the most sacred duties of every Balinese, helping the soul of the relative achieve liberation from the body, which is considered impure.

The rajah's cremation was one of the most extravagant to be held in Bali since the 1979 cremation of the late Prince of Ubud, Tjokorda Gede Agung.

Long lines of women in traditional purple sarongs, their black hair wrapped in bright yellow brocade, headed the procession. They marched down the street carrying offerings and effigies on their heads as the giant black image of a warrior known as Kala warded off evil spirits.

300 Carry Sarcophagus

More than 300 men dressed in black were needed to carry the king's wooden sarcophagus, in the shape of an enormous white bull decorated in gold and sheltered from the sun by two ceremonial umbrellas.

The bull was borne on a bamboo platform, which swayed precariously as it was carried down the street.

Behind it came a glittering 65-foot cremation tower, decorated with paper ornaments, mosaic mirrors and bright fabrics. It was carried by 300 more bearers. High in the tower an old man played traditional music on bamboo instruments.

Toward mid-afternoon, the king's procession arrived at the burial ground, where other ceremonies had been going on since morning.

Prayers and Holy Water

His body was lifted from the tower in a white sheet and placed in the sarcophagus along with the women's offerings. A high priest said prayers and poured holy water on the body.

A bamboo fire was lit under the wooden bull. Flames leaped upwards and soon engulfed it.

Later a procession took the ashes to the sea.

King Pemecutan was the last head of the Badung kingdom centered at Denpasar.

As a child, he survived a mass royal suicide when his family and courtiers ran headlong into Dutch gunfire, preferring death with dignity to the humiliation of a foreign conquest of the island.

Bali used to have many kings or rajahs, but they lost their power when Indonesia became a republic in 1945. Today only four kings remain.

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