Royal Cremation: Ubud

There is one thing that I encourage all visitors to Bali to do is witness a cremation. Culturally and spiritually inspirational, Balinese cremations are a colourful and, depending on the caste level, an extravaganza to rival any funeral in the world. Naturally, over the decades I have seen many but I was fortunate in the late 80’s to see preparations and then the whole funeral procession and subsequent cremation of a person of Brahma lineage. Respect for and worship of God and ancestors is the basis of the Balinese religion. The combination of Hindu elements makes the whole process a moving experience and one that is not to be missed.

Freeing the soul or spirit (roh) is a purification rite from its earthly basis and assist the soul on its journey to the afterlife, or if you prefer, its next existence.

If you are fortunate enough to be in Bali and especially Ubud on July 15th then you will have the opportunity to witness a royal cremation. A hefty word of warning, Get there early in the morning because you can guarantee that besides you and your numerous fellow travellers there will be accompanied literally by thousands of Balinese from all over the island coming to participate in this cremation and ceremony.

It is important that you do not get-in-the-way of any ceremonial procedures in an effort to take a photograph or jostler for a better vantage point. Stay in the near vicinity and photograph respectfully and remember, although the Balinese are happy to share this joyful occasion with you, the highest amount of respect must be adhered to.

Yesterday I was reading an excellent article about the upcoming royal funeral in the Jakarta Post by expat Janet Deneefe who is the also the brainchild behind the Ubud Writers Festival and owner of Casa Luna restaurant. Here’s the article.

Ubud busily prepares for a royal cremation
Janet Deneefe

Have you seen what is happening in Ubud at the moment? If you jalan-jalan to the crossroads of Jl. Raya, in front of the Ubud Palace, you will see some lofty constructions carving a pathway to the sky.

These grand homemade towers are silently waiting for the royal cremation that will be held in Ubud on July 15. And as I always say, “nobody does it better” than here in Ubud when it comes to ceremonies.
Two members of the royal family, Tjokorda Agung Gede Suyasa and Tjokorda Gede Raka, will be cremated as well as up to eighty Ubud residents.

Within the Ubud Palace walls there has been a huge amount of activity, and this will grow in the next few weeks. Streams of women, dressed in kebaya (traditional blouse) and sarong, have been pouring into the inner grounds to help with the activities.

The wantilan (open-air meeting place) and outer regions are the working areas for the men who have been building the funeral pyre and other cremation paraphernalia. The center of town has, in fact, become a bustling eco-friendly bamboo jungle of sorts, a rustic-style atmosphere bathed in a soft filtered light.

No expense is spared when it comes to saying farewell to loved ones in Bali. As my husband, Ketut, said when we were preparing for the cremation of his father: “He spent all his life devoted to us, so the least we can do is pay homage to him and say goodbye in the grandest possible way. It should be a wonderful occasion, to celebrate a worthy life.”

To some, a Balinese-style cremation might seem an unnecessary expense but what a lovely way to depart the world. And frankly, when my eyes close permanently and I say goodbye to the sunshine, I hope to be soaring to heaven from the grounds of Ubud cemetery amidst a burst of scarlet flames and gold cloth.

Over the years, I have helped with many cremations. My first experience with Balinese funeral rites was in 1989 when my mother-in-law passed away after a long illness. I will never forget the amount of work that had to be done with the endless piles of offerings and the countless other preparations. The quantity of food that poured forth from the kitchen was massive and cups of tea and coffee were never-ending.

Ketut and I were expected to keep vigil at the family house leading up to the big day. The extensive decorations were new to me. I particularly loved the bamboo and white cloth lanterns that were hung at the entrance of the compound, like long Chinese lanterns adorned with gold paper cut-outs.

Night after night, we slept on the cold concrete floor of the family home to keep the wondering spirit of my mother-in-law company. I will never forget the pain of sleeping on such an unforgiving surface, after knowing only the comfort of a soft mattress all my life.

When we would come back to our humble home in the mornings to mandi, I remember silently weeping in my bedroom and wondering how on earth I would last the next few days. It was a hard task; a training ground of sorts that was preparing me for life in the banjar (Balinese community).

But it is times like these where the community bonding that occurs is far more rewarding and everlasting than any single act of kindness. It is suka-duka (sadness and happiness) of the purest kind: A dose of “together we share in your sadness, together we share in your happiness” that makes friends for life and gives you an everlasting sense of belonging. And isn’t that the “something” we are so often seeking in life?

More recently I helped with the cremation of my father-in-law. This time I was not required to sleep at the family home and could return late at night with the children to my own comfort zone.

But I was able to observe, more clearly, the details of this most extraordinary ceremony and still remain in awe of the sheer work required for the Balinese. For their unfailing dedication to those who have passed away.

The pride I felt in my children as I watched their selfless participation as they helped bid farewell to their Grandpa was indescribable. I remember watching my eldest son, Krishna, as he washed the body of his grandpa before he was buried. My eyes were brimming with tears as I tenderly observed his courage. The act he performed was one that I can only imagine I would have been too timid to do at his age. Surely this is the healthiest way to deal with death.

With the road in front of the Palace now closed, Ubud’s traffic is starting to slow to a snail’s pace. There is a feeling of excitement in the air, of a great event about to happen. There is no denying Ubud is the cultural center of Bali; a title of which we are proud but one that has been upheld through a consistent commitment to the religion and the people.
And on July 15, with the royal white bulls leading the way, followed by more than sixty black bulls and red tigers racing down Jl. Raya to their respective cemeteries, you are guaranteed to be filled with emotion. This is the culmination of a thousand or more hours of work.

And after the flames die down, then begins another sequence of ceremonies to complete the rites of passage — so the deified spirit can return happily to its comfy shrine in the family temple.

Such is life in Bali — the “island of the Gods”.