Ngaben: Hindu cremation in Bali

Ngaben is one of the most sacred ceremonies in Bali. Sending off the beloved one into their next life involves a series of smaller ceremonies, culminating in the deceased’s ashes being thrown into the sea.

The Balinese believe that burning the torso purifies the soul and speeds up the return of the physical body to the five basic elements (Panca Maha Bhuta). Thus, the body of the deceased is carried on a majestic tower (called bade) to the cemetery, where it is set on fire to be cremated. The bade can be colossal or downright ordinary, depending on the social status of the deceased. Descendants of royalty will usually hold massive ngaben ceremonies, so large it becomes a temporary tourist attraction.

When the family gets word that a family member has passed away (and after a moment of grievance), the first thing to do is purify the place spiritually. It is believed that when people die, they leave behind “dirty” traces liable to attract misfortune. This ritual is known as ngulapin and is done at home or wherever the family member passed away. The body is then bathed and covered in white cloth at home.

The family then has to consult the Balinese calendar to find a good day (dewasa ayu) for holding the ngaben ceremony. Until then, the body has to be kept preserved. Once a dewasa ayu has been found, the family can start preparing the intricate offerings, and the bade needed for the ngaben ceremony. This takes a lot of work and money – sometimes, the entire banjar or village has to help out.

Once everything is set, the ngaben ceremony can take place. Before proceeding to the cemetery, the deceased’s spirit is “released” in a ritual known as mepegat, to ensure it doesn’t linger around the house. Then, off to the cemetery! The bade is hoisted by a dozen people (large bade can weigh tons!) on its way to the cemetery. At intersections, the bade is deliberately tossed and turned around to confuse the spirit so that it doesn’t remember its way home. At the cemetery, flamethrowers set everything on fire, including the bade.

Once everything has turned into ashes, family members sift through the ashes to collect the bones of the deceased. These bones are further purified before, finally, the family drives to the beach or river that’s connected to the ocean. The bones are then tossed into the water. That’s the end of ngaben, symbolizing the return of the body back to Earth and the spirit’s ascent to Heaven.

After ngaben, there’s another follow-up ceremony known as mamukur. Even though the spirit has officially ascended, the living can still do more to ensure the dead enjoy their stay in Heaven. Mamukur involves further purification of the deceased’s remains so that the deceased gets a better seat in Heaven. It also officially “places” the spirit at the family temple complex so that the family can pray for the dead anytime.

If you want to witness a grand ngaben ceremony, you need a lot of luck. Large ngaben ceremonies are becoming rarer as the Balinese become more economically aware. The more progressive Balinese, especially those living in urban areas, seek cheaper and less tiresome alternatives, such as cremation houses. In rural areas around Ubud, though, you might get a chance to see a large ngaben ceremony.