“The body is only an encasing for the soul which is eternal”.
2:30 am……my alarm sounds…..darkness surrounds me and I listen to the night sounds. I let my mind drift to the Kuburan or cremation grounds. I am about to participate in the “awakening of the dead” or ngagah. We will be exhuming the body of Ketut’s mother to prepare it for the Ngaben or cremation ceremony. In Balinese, ngaben means turn to ash. I do nothing for several minutes but allow myself to reflect on the lives and deaths in my own life. Next, I do my best to properly attire myself in my kamen, kebaya and anteng and then make my way downstairs to wait for Koming and Ketut.
It’s a crisp, clear August night/morning as I travel to the Kuburan on the back of Ketut’s motorcycle. We arrive at the Peyadnyan and I make my way to the Petak. Family members are preparing the tools and supplies needed for exhuming and then cleansing the body/remains. I follow the family to the Kuburan where some members of the family have already begun the exhumation process. A solemnness hangs in the cool night air as young and old look on. No one is openly mourning as even this, “the awakening of the dead”, is the beginning of a celebration; a celebration of life. A time to celebrate helping the soul of the deceased move on from their previous life. Koming’s flashlight goes out, so I use the light on my phone to assist the young men digging at the gravesite. A yell of joy comes from in front of me. They have reached the body. Some of the men now drop their tools and pull the dirt away with their hands until a once white sheet is lifted from the grave. I brace myself as this is the first time I have seen a body that has been exhumed.
First, I see the skull, then a torso still wrapped in funeral cloth and finally smaller bones of arms, legs, hands, and feet are added to the pile. Water, water with flowers and coconut water are used as we wash the “body”. The torso is placed on a fresh white sheet and the skull and other bones are placed as if a whole body. It is a sight I will never forget, forever etched into my mind’s eye. It was not a morbid sight. The way the remains were so gently cleansed and lovingly cared for touched my soul. Today, after all, is about the soul which will first be purified by fire which represents earth. Tomorrow it will be purified by water so it may return to heaven. After the cleansed remains are wrapped in the white sheet, they are then placed and wrapped on a rattan mat, wrapped and moved to the burning area. Before the grave is re-filled with dirt a pengiber iber or chicken representing the happiness of the Ngaben is released as we say masuryak or horray. In the old tradition, the chicken was released into the grave and buried. New traditions allow the pengiber iber to be released free outside of the grave although it still represents replacing one soul with another.
Around me, more shouts of masuryak went up. Soon all the remains of the 18 souls were in the burning area. Time for the Ngaben to begin…..the “turning to ash”. As the community looked on, the black of the night took on an orange glow. I looked around at the faces of those watching friends and loved ones’ physical body beginning the journey to return to the panca maha bhuta or 5 elements; pertiwi, apah, teja, bayu and akasa (earth, water, fire, air, and ether). Pensive faces lit in the glow of the fire, young children looking on with wondering eyes, me filled with emotions, questions, and a sense of peace.
We all stood quietly in the still of the morning and as the glowing embers were dying, the sun made its dramatic entrance. Next, the ashes were gathered and placed on white sheets. They would later be distributed to the families for the next steps in the ceremony.
Koming informed me we were finished for now. I could join her at the market and then we would go home to have breakfast, shower and prepare for the next activities. After the market, we stopped by a street vendor to get breakfast. We picked up bubuh to take back to Kenari House. Bubuh is made with a rice congee base with various toppings added. It can be made spicy or not and is served in a banana leaf. Tear off a piece of the leaf and make yourself a spoon if eating on the go. After breakfast, we showered and changed and headed back to the Kuburan.
Upon returning to the ceremony grounds the sarcophagi were uncovered and ready for the next part of the ceremony. A sarcophagus could be a lembu or bull or a singa mangaraja, a lion with wings. The animals would be taken to the community of the deceased in celebration and then returned to the cremation grounds and placed on the wadah or structure for burning.
Before the start of this part of the ceremony, there was a short service blessing the sarcophagi/animals. As the animals were taken to the respective communities/compounds, I sat near the petak and watched and listened. Friends and families, visiting, laughing and celebrating. The gamelan played. Soon, the sarcophaguses were making their way back. They were taken to the Kuburan and placed on wadahs. The family now filled the animals with items needed in the next life. Once prepared, the priest checked and blessed with holy water. The family gathered around with more offerings and circled the sarcophagus. Finally, Ketut and Koming using incense sticks, lit the animal on fire. Again, we all watched as flames engulfed the sarcophagus. As the flames died down, we went back to the petak, had a lunch of nasi campur and satay followed by a frozen bean curd pop called es lilin.
Around 3 pm, after what had been a long and emotional day, Koming said we were finished and I could return to Kenari House. She wasn’t able to take me, so I took a leisurely stroll home where I enjoyed a glass of rose’ on my patio and thought about all I had experienced in this circle of life.
Next post-Nyekah and Nganyut
Ashes to ashes….dust to dust!