Death and the Afterlife in Bali

Death in Bali is considered to be both ritually polluting and contaminating. These perceptions are reflected in the location of the pura dalem -the community temple where funerary rites are held-at the inauspicious, seaward end (kelod) of the village and also a little to the west, the setting sun in Bali being identified with the passing of life. The community graveyard and cremation site are located nearby-the cremation ground is usually simply a clearing in the cemetery at most kelod end.

Pura dalem can often be spotted from some distance away by the presence of kapok trees (Ceiba pentandra), with their distinctive horizontal branches and cotton bearing pods, which are frequently planted in the vicinity.

Siwa, Durga and Rangda

Hindi deities are typically perceived as having a number of different attributes or guises and pura dalem are usually dedicated to Siwa in his destructive aspect, though Siwa is of course also conceived as a god of creative energies. This apparent conflict of interests between these dual natures is not so much a case of contradiction as one of complementarity, for death, in the Hindu scheme of things, is merely one stage in an endless cycle of reincarnation and in this last respect, it is a necessary prelude to rebirth.

The creative aspect of Siwa is often personified in his wife, Durga, but she too, like her husband, has a dark, destructive side to her, metamorphosing into the demoic with-like Rangda, whom the anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes as a “monstrous queen of the witches, ancient widow, used-up prostitute, child-murdering incarnation of the goddess of death”.

Death and the Fate of the Soul

There are a number of perspectives on the post-mortem fate of the soul in Bali. Some are mutually exclusive and would logically deny all other possibilities; others are more tolerant of rival interpretations. Two explanations, however, would seem to prevail in Balinese accounts of what happens to the soul after death.

The first of these supposes that the correct performance of mortuary rituals, including cremation, ensures that the soul, which at the moment of death is impure, will subsequently be purified, thus enabling it to merge with a collective ancestral deity. The Balinese are rather vague about the precise nature of this aggregate ancestral spirit, but it is sometimes said to be responsible for the spiritual welfare and general health and well-being of living descendants.

The second point of view assumes that the soul of the deceased is subject to divine judgment based on the relative merit, or moral discredit, of deeds carried out during the dead person1s life time. Depending on the final `score`, which is reckoned according to the laws of karma-pala (literally, `actions` and their `fruit`), the soul is then sentenced to a period in the afterworld-either Heaven of Hell as the case may be –before being reborn into the world of the living again.

Burial and Cremation

The pollution of death is reflected not only in the kelod location of the graveyard, but also in the degradation of being interred underground.
Should there be sufficient funds, an immediate cremation is preferred since this skips the burial stage. In the case of members of a royal family, it is considered unseemly that such an illustrious corpse should be placed in the ground, so the body is preserved, lying in state, in a special pavilion in the palace compound, until suitable preparations for a lavish cremation ceremony have been completed and there is an auspicious day in the Balinese calendar for the ceremony to take place. This lying in state period may be last for months, even years. Priests are not buried either, there being a ritual prohibition on their interment.

Creamation (ngaben) releases the soul from its ties to earth, returning the five elemental constituents of the body-earth, fire, water, air and space-to the cosmos. The ashes are thrown in a river or cast upon the sea, with the final mortuary sites being held some 12 days later (longer in the case of the triwangsa castes). These complete the Balinese cycle of death rituals, at which point the newly-purified soul becomes incorporated with those of the ancestors.

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