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Indonesia is a vast country and home to multiple religions and ethnic groups. So while you can certainly identify elements of an overall ‘Indonesian’ culture, in some regions the distinct subculture of the people who live there is what comes across most strongly. This is true in, among many other places, Bali, the areas in and around Bajawa in Flores and the Tana Toraja region of Central Sulawesi. Intricate rituals are part of daily life in all three of these cultures, and I was lucky enough to have witnessed death rituals in both Bali and Tana Toraja. And, of course, have some pretty fascinating photos and videos to share with you as a result.

Balinese culture, as you may have gathered from previous photo albums I’ve posted, is quite unique. People refer to it as Hindu, but Balinese Hinduism differs greatly from that practiced in India, and is really a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism and the animist traditions of the people indigenous to the island.

While in Bali I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a cremation ceremony—which I know may sound a bit odd. As a fellow American (who has attended numerous cremations over the years that he has been visiting Bali) pointed out to me, in Western cultures you would of course never think of inviting random strangers to the funeral of one of your family members. But funerals and cremation ceremonies in Bali (and elsewhere) are events attended by the larger community, and outsiders are welcome and even encouraged to attend. I was invited to this one because it was in the village of Nyuh Kuning, home to the Bumi Sehat clinic at which I was to volunteer, and one of the people being cremated was a member of the family in whose compound Robin Lim, the clinic’s director, had lived for many years. But as it turned out this didn’t really matter, as the ceremony was attended by a good number of tourists, many of whom I’m sure didn’t have any connection, even as tangential as mine, to the families involved.

The Balinese, in fact, are so accustomed to the presence of tourists in their lives that in several paintings I saw at museums in Ubud, scenes depicting village life and all the attendant goings-on (cow-milking, rice-harvesting, bathing in the river, etc.), also included a random Westerner or two with a camera looking on!

Cremation ceremonies are held by every village for all of their dead at once. How often they do this depends on the wealth of the village, as the ceremony is an expensive one and, as in most things, economies of scale prevail. Some villages do a cremation ceremony every year, but Nyuh Kuning holds theirs every five. The one I was to attend, I was told, was for 32 people.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on Balinese cremation ceremonies and can’t even explain everything I saw, but I will tell you what I can and the photos and videos will illustrate, if not elaborate.

After someone dies there is a funeral and a burial, but it is believed that the person’s soul will not be at rest until cremation takes place. When it comes time for this, the body is dug up and the remains are taken out to be cremated. They are placed inside the body of a wooden animal that serves as a sarcophagus, usually a horse or bull, which will be burned, thereby conveying the soul to heaven.

The first part of the ceremony (which I did not attend) involves carrying the body from the burial ground to the cremation ground. When I arrived at the cremation ground I found that there was an entire hall full of elaborate offerings—flowers, clothing, intricately-folded money and many a roasted baby pig (some laid down among other offerings, some impaled on large sticks).

At the appointed hour the families of the dead begin to pick up all of the offerings and carry them in a procession to the area where the actual cremation will take place. The family members, one carrying a photo of the dead loved one, parade around the sarcophagus (now we know why the roasted pigs are on sticks!) and, when the procession has finished, place the offerings on the ground at the base of the sarcophagus.

It’s not a particularly somber event, perhaps because in most cases the person has been dead for several years, but the parading around the sarcophagus is probably the most solemn part. A priest is then presented with a tray full of jars and bottles containing several types of liquids (holy water and various herbal concoctions, presumably), and each is sprinkled in turn into the cloth-covered box with the remains in it. A very elaborate and lengthy ritual.

Once all of this has taken place, everyone stands back and the entire thing is set on fire and all that is left to do is watch it burn.

One thing I found strange was how small the sarcophagi seemed to be, given that each was supposed to able to hold a dead body. This confusion was compounded as I watched them cut quite a small hole in the top and place what appeared to be a very small amount of remains (wrapped in white cloth) inside. I learned later that in this particular ceremony, the bodies were not actually burned. Apparently after the last one five years ago everyone in the village got sick, so, instead of assuming that, for example, something was amiss in the lunch that followed the ceremony, the village elders decided this was a sign from their ancestors that they should no longer burn the actual bodies. Make of that what you will; as it turned out, this particular cremation was all symbolic.

You can view the photo album (which includes several videos) here.

Coming soon: Death rituals (part two)—a Torajan funeral.