All around the world, people practice their own funerary customs and traditions. Some cultures practice air sacrifices, some practice cave burials – but people from Bali, Indonesia, combine religion and cremation in a ritual known as the fire burial. Through fire burial, families send off their dearest relatives, who then reenter the cycle of reincarnation.
Due to Hindu influences, Fire Burials have become the traditional burial method in Bali. Indonesia as a whole practices Buddhism, but the people of Bali are largely Hindu and have adopted the customs of Indian’s Hinduism. Hinduism originated in India around 2000 BCE and arrived in Indonesia around the first century CE. Hindu culture involves strong beliefs in the power of fire and death—thus making cremation a primary burial option. Cremation releases the soul from the body and enables the soul to enter the afterlife. While the Balinese have taken up Hinduism, however, they don’t follow the rituals precisely, but rather create their own by incorporating the practice of cremation.
In India, many Hindus cremate within one day of the passing, while Balinese fire burials usually take place a few months after a loved one’s end of life. This gives the family more time to prepare economically and allows the town to honor multiple loved ones at the same time. Sometimes families wait to join the cremation of a royal family member. Before the royal cremation, the loved one is given a funeral and buried until the cremation approaches. Then, three days before the cremation, he or she is placed inside the house to get ready for the fire burial. The night before the ceremony, a priest joins the family and friends. They make offerings so that the soul may have a safe journey. Finally, on the day of the fire burial, the loved one is placed inside a bull made out of paper and wood, which is then placed inside a cremation tower. The town gathers and watches the bull burn to ash. Lastly, the family scatters the ashes into the river, allowing the soul to enter the cycle of reincarnation.
One may think that a fire burial is a time of sorrow, but while there is grieving, there is mostly happiness and celebration for their loved one’s passing to the next life. According to a New York Times article, a Balinese man talks about his beliefs of reincarnation and says, “none of us is brand new… We are part of the cycle of life.” His statement reveals the Balinese perspective, in which everyone must go through the circle of life.
The efforts put into fire burials take time and energy. All the work becomes worthwhile, however, once the final ashes are strewn across the rivers—once the surviving loved ones know that the dead will find their way back to life.
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