A funeral ceremony on Java

Sequel of “Diving into Balinese Culture”

Smiling right into death’s face

One Morning Ketut made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse. He invited me to join him and his wife on a journey to the neighboring island called Java. With a smile in his face he explained that his uncle died and that his whole family is gathering in their home village to cremate his body in a big ceremony. Up to this point it was hard for me to understand how managed to say these words with this big smile on his face.
In the afternoon of the same day we travelled to Java by car and ferry. As we reached the small village next to the city of Bunyuwangi late at night, Ketut’s blind brother welcomed us on the family’s farm. It didn’t took me long to fall asleep.

Party Time

Suddenly I woke up to the loud cackle of a chicken. Some of the guest were gathering already in front of the house. Everyone was in a cheerful mood, I got offered coffee and rice. They were smiling the whole time. I could already hear the distant drums of the celebration. Ketut was in a rush, he explained that he has to leave to get involved with the preparations and that I would be taken care of by one of his closest friends who would take me to the celebration later. As I finished my coffee I got dressed by Ketut’s wife. Wearing a black sarong and a black turban I made my way to the fairground.
The drumroll got louder as we approached the location. Equipped with my camera I was strolling through the crowd of people and every single one of them wanted to be photographed. No besides Ketut spoke English, but we were able to communicate with hand signs. Children were playing on the gras and adults were sitting on plastic chairs. Everybody was desperately waiting for the big moment. Up to this point I didn’t felt like being on a funeral but rather on a joyful village festival. The people seemed frisky, were fooling around and everyone seemed delighted. The women were sitting together apart from the men, grinning shy for my camera.
From one moment to the other, total silence. One of the priests started to chant very loud, everyone joined him. A thread made out of fabric was spanned through the lines of mourners. Another priest burned the threat bit by bit with a candle. Afterwards they distributed pieces of coconuts which were placed on everyones hand and then thrown in the air accompanied by a loud scream and until now I still don’t really know why they did it.
The ceremony was about get started. In a rush some men took a cardboard box out of a small room. This was where the deceased was stored in. Before they continued they started turning in circles with the box on their shoulders to confuse the deceased’s soul. Loud drumming started again and the locals began to decorate the cardboard box with flours and bright colors. A caravan of people arose followed by the men caring the decorated coffin. They were heading towards a nearby river where the villages “big Tempel” is located. 

A celebration of fire

As the caravan reached the Temple they took the corpse out of the cardboard box and started unwrapping it. It was my first time seeing a dead body and I froze on the spot. After several minutes of calming myself down I was able to rebound and I continued taking pictures. Having my camera at hand helped me to look much more professional as I actually felt in these moments. Suddenly I realized that everyone else didn’t stopped smiling what made me gain some comfort again.

Then the corpse was placed in between to metal plates and swamped with flowers and offerings. The drums reached a certain volume that made it impossible to have a conversation. All eyes were aiming for the the priests who started to set the corpse on fire. Loud chanting and deafening drumming were dominating the scene. I felt like in a trance and most of the other guests seemed to feel similarly.
The heat of the wild burning fire caressed my skin. Despite dozens of incense sticks around me I smelled something very unpleasant. The Fire was enhancing and dense smoke started to cover the Tempel Area. And then it struck me, that the children were staring into the flames. They were the only ones watching the body burning until the end.
It took a couple of minutes and then the only thing left of the corpse was ash that was scattered all over the place. The drums were fading away and the ceremony was over.

Exhausted I started my search for Ketut who found shelter from the sun under a big tree. He realized my bewilderedness, offered me some Water and fresh fruits and we started to talk about todays events.

Balinese cremation ceremonies differ from person to person and from village to village depending on the rank and popularity of the deceased. Ketut explained, that everything I experienced today were special rituals of his village orientated on Bali’s culture. In Hinduism death is seen as one of life’s most important steps. Adapting the idea of Karma, death isn’t the end of ones life but an important part of enlightenment. Rebirth is dominating the ideology of Bali’s people. This is the reason why the cremation ceremonies are planned with a lot of caution and respect to soul of the deceased to allow it a safe entry into the next life.

Between volcanos and rice fields I learned one of life’s most important lessons. I am not part of any kind of world religion nevertheless I have to acknowledge the influence that the ceremony had on my way to think. Shiva, the God that destroys with fire and recreates with drum roll changed my picture of death. Hindus believe, that Shiva dances in the heart of each living individual and and in between every swing of it’s dance, creation and destruction occurs.
I am very grateful to have met all these amazing people in Indonesia, who took me into their homes and treated me like family. They invited me to join them on a very special event and I can never thank them enough for what they did for me. They taught me that the small things in life matter, like introducing a young german traveller to their own culture. By being generous, openhearted, kind and good to the people you encounter during your life you will reach immortality.

Still, death is part of everyones life and I will always remember the happy mourners of Indonesia.

I got the chance to publish a german version of this article in a german newspaper last year – click here to check it out :

You want to know how I got myself into this adventure? Read “Diving into Balinese Culture”