Death by numbers: Bali style

For several months now our village has been even busier than usual. There’s always something going on. Not long ago it was the bazzar. But preparations for the cremation ceremony that will happen on August 3 are all consuming.

At 7.30 am the kul-kul sounds to rally the first shift of workers. At 1pm, the next group are called and so it goes on throughout the day and into the night. Twenty-nine people will be cremated this time. Such mass cremations are not unusual, but it has only been three years since the last one here; usually they are five years apart. Because the Pura Dalem (village temple of the dead) has been totally renovated at huge expense, this ceremony has been brought forward to occur before its rededication blessing, and another huge ceremony, some time next year.

First signs of the forthcoming work began a couple of months ago when a block of land, usually used for parking bikes and cars, was closed off. Despite the rain we had been having, temporary buildings have been constructed, tarpaulins fastened securely to protect the spaces. Each serves as a working and storage area. When we wandered over, men were building sarcophagi to house the individual remains; boxes for the ashes and various other such tasks. Meanwhile the women have been making hundreds, if not thousands, of offerings. Each person in the village has been assigned to a team with a particular set of tasks to fulfil, and the time they spend is monitored.

The power of community. It’s taking its toll though. Everyone seems very tired. Once, not very long ago, peoples’ only obligations were family and village. Now they have to fit paid work in also. And there are still another 12 days to go before the cremations, which are not even the end point. Life in a Balinese village is exhausting.

One of the long pavilions has 29 sections, marked off and numbered, referring to the person who will be cremated on the day. Offerings and other items related to the family concerned are being stored here. On the day, the family members will also wear the relevant number.


The amount of work and the expense is mind boggling. Unless the family can afford to pay for a private cremation, an event such as this not only shares the workload, but also the expense. Before cremation day, usually in the very early hours, the remains of each deceased will be exhumed and respectfully brought to the preparation area.

From our house we can hear gamelan music and the intonations of the various priests as all this is going on. On the day, the procession will be spectacular, with 29 colourful sarcophagi and the entire village walking to the cremation ground. There will be no bulls this time, they are reserved for the highest castes, but lions and fish and other animals, lovingly made and beautifully adorned, will carry the remains only to literally go up in flames. An unforgettable sight.

No wonder religion is a powerhouse of the Balinese economy, second only to tourism.





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