Cremation is a popular disposition option on the Indonesian island of Bali, just as it is in the rest of the world. But the Balinese go about cremation a bit differently than we do in the western world. For those who practice Hinduism in Bali, the cremation ceremony of Ngaben is a central funeral rite.
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Ngaben is a joyous occasion, but it’s also a complex mourning ritual. And if you’re interested in death in different cultures, you’ll enjoy learning about the unique traditions of Ngaben.
Below, we’ll discuss Ngaben, what happens during the ceremony, and what you can expect if you ever attend one.
What’s Ngaben (Pitra Yadnya or Pelebon)?
The Ngaben as a ritual is central to Balinese culture, as well as each individual’s spiritual life. It’s one of the most significant events that happen in a person’s life (although technically, it happens when they’re already dead). And the centuries-old tradition is also one of the most important ceremonies held in the Hindu communities of Bali.
A Ngaben ceremony, sometimes known as Pitra Yadnya or Pelebon, features several unique rituals. In the end, each Ngaben funeral ceremony culminates in the cremation of the deceased body. Ngaben literally translates to “turning to ash.”
Religion in Bali
Bali is unique in its practice of Hinduism. That’s because Indonesia predominantly practices the religion of Islam. According to the Islamic faith, the preferred method of disposition is always burial. Cremation is strictly forbidden for followers of the religion.
But in Bali, the majority of residents are Hindu. And according to Hindu teachings, cremation is the preferred method for everyone other than babies, children, and saints.
Philosophy of Ngaben
People around the world choose cremation for a wide range of reasons: from the lower cost of direct cremation to the simplicity it offers. But what makes Bali’s Ngaben ceremony unique is its underlying philosophy.
Balinese Hindus believe each person consists of two parts: the soul and the body. Dying is the incapacitation of the physical body, but the soul lives on. Balinese Hinduism views death as a type of “long sleep,” during which the body is incapacitated, but the person isn’t gone from the earth.
The Ngaben ceremony serves to free the soul from its entrapment within the incapacitated body. By burning the deceased, Balinese Hindus believe they’re setting the person’s spirit free.
Reincarnation in Balinese Hinduism
Like other Hindus, Balinese Hindus believe that the soul is eternal. It can return to the physical world again and again. Each time the soul returns to the physical world, it has the opportunity to work through its karma until it’s pure enough to reach eternal rest.
The Ngaben ceremony plays an important role in the Hindu philosophy of reincarnation and karma. Burning the body of the deceased allows the soul the freedom it needs to continue the cycle.
Balinese Hindu funeral rites reflect the ideology that physical death isn’t the end of the line. The soul still has much work to do before reaching eternal peace, or moksha.
Losing a family member isn’t easy, even for Balinese Hindus who believe the soul must continue its journey. But because a Ngaben ceremony is a celebration, family members are often advised not to shed a tear. Attendees should avoid displays of grief and mourning the loss of the departed.
Instead, everyone present makes the effort towards positivity at the Ngaben. They focus on what happens after death, and the soul’s ability to go free after they finally burn the body.
What Happens During a Ngaben Ceremony?
Because Ngaben centers around reincarnation and continuing life’s essential cycle, it isn’t a mournful occasion. Instead, Ngaben ceremonies are traditionally joyous and triumphant affairs.
Family members and other attendees gather to celebrate the soul’s next step on its journey to eternal peace.
The faster the Ngaben cremation ceremony can take place, the better. But most families can’t afford to perform the ritual right away. Instead, the body usually goes through an interim state of burial.
While the body is buried and awaiting cremation, the family has the opportunity to raise funds to pay for the Ngaben. Communities often pool their resources and cremate multiple bodies on the same day with one elaborate Ngaben ceremony.
A Hindu priest or counsel of elders chooses the date of the Ngaben according to the Balinese calendar. A Ngaben has to take place on an auspicious day (a day of good fortune).
Making the bade and patulangan
When the funds are available to prepare the Ngaben ceremony, the family (or families) create the bade. The bade, sometimes known as the waddhu, is the ceremonial cremation tower. Families construct the multiple-level tower using bamboo, paper, and wood materials. The bade tower is typically brightly colored and decorated with ornate designs.
Crafting the patulangan, sometimes known as the lembu, is the next step. The patulangon is a special sarcophagus designed for the ceremony. It’s often shaped like an ox (lembu literally means “ox”) or another animal. Unlike a traditional coffin, a lembu can be relatively gigantic. For example, the lembu for the Empress of Ubud was nearly eight feet tall.
Calling the soul and cleansing the body
Before the traditional burning of the body, along with its bade and patulangan, the soul and the body must be prepared. The first step is calling the person’s soul, or atma to ensure its presence at the ceremony.
This is especially important if the person died somewhere other than at home, like the hospital or in an accident.
Before the ceremony takes place, the family ceremonially cleanses the body. They might also carefully place some sentimental and symbolic items alongside it in the lembu.
Procession to the cremation site
Next, the funeral procession transports the cremation tower and the coffin or coffins to the site where the burning will take place. The procession is joyous and often features musicians.
Along the way, the procession often shakes the tower, spins it around (it’s often on wheels), and throws water on it. This is to confuse the spirits of the deceased so that they can’t return back to their earthly home.
Ceremony at the cemetery
Once the bade arrives at the cemetery, or the site where the cremation is set to take place, a Hindu priest leads the ceremony. A number of rituals take place before the priest finally sets the tower alight.
The rituals center around helping the soul achieve its departure from the body. They try to ensure that the soul is able to continue on its journey to eternal peace, rather than remaining attached to the physical world. A Hindu priest often leads the gathering in prayers along this same theme.
As the tower burns and cremates the body, funeral attendees usually stand in quiet reflection. Later on, they typically retire for food and drink at a nearby home.
Scattering the ashes
The final stage of the Ngaben is dispersing the ashes. For the Balinese, there are five elements that make up the human body: earth, water, fire, air, and ether. And each of these elements must be returned to its origin to complete the funeral rites.
By burning the body in the cremation ceremony, the body returns to the earth, fire, air, and ether. The final step is returning the body to the water. To complete this stage, Ngaben celebrants scatter the ashes into an ocean or river.
The ash scattering happens days after the cremation, and it may be accompanied by its own ceremony. Family members sometimes build effigies of the person who died and burn them before completing this final step.
Journey to Eternal Peace
In Hinduism, a soul’s ultimate goal is to achieve freedom from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This state of eternal, spiritual peace is called moksha or sometimes mukti.
By cremating the body, Hindus believe they’re liberating the soul from its physical imprisonment. The soul can then await reincarnation and continue the process of purification, or go on to moksha if its journey is done.
For Balinese Hindus celebrating a Ngaben ceremony, cremation is a joyous and festive occasion. But as humans, we mourn the loss of those closest to us. We never enjoy losing someone we love, no matter what our belief system.
If you ever attend a Ngaben, you might not immediately notice signs of mourning like you would see at a western funeral. But it’s important to keep in mind that grief is universal and a part of the human experience.
- “Ngaben : Ketika Kematian Hanya Sementara.” Jurnal Dimensi. 2006. https://trijurnal.lemlit.trisakti.ac.id/index.php/dimensi/article/view/1310
- Ayu, Prima. “‘Ngaben,’ The Balinese Cremation Ceremony Of The Empress Of Ubud.” Latitudes. 21 August 2011. https://latitudes.nu/%E2%80%9Cngaben%E2%80%9D-the-balinese-cremation-ceremony-of-the-empress-of-ubud/