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A Hindu Cremation Ceremony

I went to a cremation ceremony my first day here, an event which truly redefines a hands on approach to death. It honoured a deceased mother of 7, who was also a grandmother of 20 and great grandmother of 6.

The cremation event was unlike anything I'd ever seen. The walkway to the compound was lined with wreaths of tropical flowers 6 feet tall, magnificent, fragrant and expensive. The woman was lying on a platform in the temple area of the family compound, entirely covered up in what looked to be a shroud. After the last guest was greeted and offered a refreshment of small colourful cakes and bottled water, the Baliana healers entered along with the priest.

The deceased woman was carried out to the gathering area, a canopied corridor ready to receive her on what looked like an alter. She was carefully uncovered, her loins modestly hidden by a folded sarong and otherwise naked. The priest then washed her hair, so tenderly; over and over the holy water ran through the long gray strands dripping onto the hot stone tiles below. It was extraordinary to see such a modest culture follow a tradition of nudity in a public show of respect as in this type of ceremony. Such is one of the polarities of this fascinating and mysterious people.

Once her hair was washed the sons and daughters all helped to bath her body, the male members of the family standing close, the women a little behind, all working together with a cooperation and coordination that inspired nothing short of awe. There were no tears, no bickering, there was work to be done. Together they lifted her small stiff body up and down to cleanse her in readiness for her afterlife. She was then wrapped in a sarong and then another shroud, again up and down in unison so that the folds fell elegantly and neatly around her body.

The entire family gathered in front of the alter, sitting cross legged, mostly in white, and prayed, chanted and then stood one by one taking turns to hold her feet and kiss them before she was moved back to the original platform for more prayers. Incense burned in the heat, smoke curling through the thick humid air, the songbird restless in the cage, dogs barked in the lane outside.

The crowd of 150 plus of us witnessed the good-bye, many holding tiny video cameras and cell camera phones above their heads capturing this ancient ritual with an unsettling, incongruent modernity. She was lowered into a simple coffin which was draped with a cloth with gold edging, taken out of the compound, the audience followed into the street where the entire village was gathered in readiness for the burning ceremony, which would be followed by a procession to the sea for the scattering of the ashes.

The accompanying sound from the musicians was tinny and insistent, a medley of percussion instruments and singing, urgent in rhythm, demanding attention from the Gods, from us and punctuating the ceremony which ended with a pierce ringing from the blur of a moving bell in the authoritative hand of the priest; A sound surely keeping the dead awake and attentive; a nonnegotiable call to remain present in this sustained moment after moment, exhausting me in awareness of what I could not understand, nowhere close to succeeding to make my own and tame it into something familiar, something to assimilate and integrate into my perception of the world.

In the absence of life in this small frail body, witnessed while held in the throbbing life force of Bali, a vibration that pulsates with all sorts of inexplicable energies, I resign myself to the improbability of grasping the juxtaposition of a such graphic display of life and death as it contradicts and exposes the tidy distance maintained in our own Western burial ritual.

written by Aziza Founder Laila Ghattas 2006

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Additional Bali Retreat Reviews 2008 / 2007 / 2006 /2005 / 2004


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