Pelebon is a Hindu funeral ceremony from Bali, Indonesia. It is ceremony that is famous for it’s elaborate décor, use of bright colors, countless community support as well as the famous public cremation. Pelebon means “turning into ash” and is reserved for those of royalty. For common folk (I would fall into this category) they would use the word Ngaben which also means “turning into ash.” In order for your loved one to free itself from it’s worldly ties, it is believed that they should be cremated and soar to the heavens so that they may be reincarnated into a someone better.
Once you die, an auspicious day for one to have their Ngaben is found in the Balinese calendar, this is looked into along with a family agreement/contract and permission from a Hindu priest. Until that day, the body is kept at home. This becomes a problem if your family does not have the means to cover the cost of the Ngaben.
For people of low economic factors, your loved one can be buried but the family must ensure that they will allocate the appropriate amount needed to cover the expenses (while your loved one remains in limbo so to speak).
This could take years. The decedent will be purified or washed and then buried in the Pura Dalem or the family temple complex also known as the “temple of the dead”; these always face the sea. Once your loved one is interred, daily offerings of food are placed next to a shrine set up for them.
Small coconut leaves are left at the head and feet of the grave as markers so that the spirit can find its way back to its body at night. Leaving no leaves, can be detrimental to the whole village or family as the spirit can forever wander endlessly. The ideal timing, if one cannot afford to cremate right away, is three years. If a family goes past that length, it is believed that the soul cannot rise and become a “purified ancestor” as it is residing in limbo.
Something that is quite common is that community’s will pull together their funds and resources and do a mass Ngaben where instead of paying 15-25 million rupiah the equivalent of about $1,000- $1,600) for just their loved one, now they can split the costs amongst 4 other people and pay ¼ of the price. Now back to the Pura Dalem (cemetery). A week prior to the cremation, the village and family will start bringing gifts to the decedent. The family will then host everyone with food and entertainment. Three days before the cremation, the decedent is removed from it’s shallow grave and the Ngebet or “bone taking” begins. Family members assist in removing the body or fragments thereof and can immediately start washing the bones. If the loved one is slightly decomposed or mummified, they will (sans gloves) handle the remains and wash them.
This is done while the whole village is looking. Effigies of the decedent can be placed on the remains to symbolize who they were in real life or to aid them with their reincarnation. The loved one is then reassembled in the form of their past self on a white sheet and wrapped in a bundle. Now lets say you want to have multiple Ngaben’s on the same day for several people; you’ve pulled your resources together (finances et al.), but you forgot where your loved ones remains are at the Pura Dalem. You see, these are unmarked so the longer you wait to host a Ngaben, the greater the chance of forgetting where exactly you last left them. All is not lost! An effigy can be made of the loved one using materials such as: mirror to symbolize eyes, nails for teeth, etc. These remains are then wrapped in a white sheet. The family can then place money so that the deceased can use it in their next life. The wrapped remains will be kept in a temporary shelter for three days and family and friends keep them company with prayers.
Tending to the loved one’s body (sans gloves) can be a visceral and emotional experience. This is left to the family to do under the direction of the priests and the watchful eyes of the community. Depending on how long the loved one has been dead, certain decomposition aromas can take place. The use of sandlewood is heavily used in preparing for a Ngaben; this and incense so as to mask the natural decaying odors. While this custom goes against OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogen Rule (UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR ) or California’s §3380. Personal Protective Devices (Giso), well with the lack of Personal Protective Equipment, it is their culture, and this is how they revere their dead. In fact, this is a happy occasion as the family performing the washing ritual understands that they are completing their familial obligation to allow their loved one’s soul to be purified by releasing it from the body and to be cremated.
Both the bone/partial human remains, and effigies may then proceed on to the next step, which is the cremation. The day before the cremation, one last stop to the Pura Dalem takes place. The family dresses up and takes offerings to the temple. On the day of the Ngaben, the remains (this includes the effigies), sit on a tower built from wood and bamboo. The towers can rise up to be 30-60 feet tall and are adorned with bright paper, string, mirrors, flowers, and other colorful items. This tower has three tiers, the remains sit at the very top and along side of the remains, rides a standing priest.
The lower tier is the base for the family/community/pall bearers to hold and carry. Along the way to the temple, the pallbearers twist, twirl, and circle the tower around; this is meant to disorient the soul of the deceased so that they will never be able to find their way home. Music, drumming, and gleeful dancing accompany this procession to the temple. In front of the procession is the sarcophagus, which can take the form of a black bull, winged lion, or an elephant. It is the first to arrive at the temple, waiting for the tower to arrive and to receive the remains.
The remains are placed into the back of the sarcophagus, offerings are made and the priest sprinkles holy water onto the sarcophagus and does a final ritual. After this is done, the sarcophagus is set on fire to purify and release the soul. It is only until the entire sarcophagus has been burned completely does that signal that the soul has ascended into heaven. Whatever bone fragments are leftover and recognized, are gathered along with flowers and wrapped in yellow and white material.
The ritual of cremation is not over, just as it is not over in the U.S. where cremation is not the final disposition – they require the purification of the soul which requires liquid so that the remains can go out to sea. Depending on the location of the family, they could set the remains adrift into a river to be taken out to sea. Up until now, is the soul finally released to heaven and can begin it’s stage of reincarnation. During this whole time of dealing with a death, preparing for it (financially), doing the ceremonial washing et al… No one is allowed to cry. No emotion is to take place. So as an outsider, watching the pomp and circumstance, the spectacle, one can think “Hold on”.
So why did I mention Théâtre de l’absurde? As an outsider looking in, for years, anthropologists have witnessed and documented the Ngaben or Pelebon. The Pelebon, strickly for those of royalty or high status, becomes a greater spectacle, which halts the everyday life in a city. Clifford Geertz who did fieldwork in Bali, believed that it was an elaborate form of “political theater” where “an aggressive assertion of status” emphasized the spectacle. The Pelebon, which are reserved to the higher caste system in Bali, are indeed that, a spectacle in which tourists can plan their vacation around. Regardless of political takes, the ceremony is actually quite poetic and complex and who are we to judge how others care for their deceased. Also, the black bull sarcophagus’ look really cool as a sculpture.