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When I was 11 years old I visited Bali and witnessed a
Ngaben. I don’t remember a lot, but my father did take a few pictures of the
ceremony:

Overall a Ngaben is more like
a celebration then a mourning ritual. The community and family knows that if
everything goes well the soul of the deceased will go to a better place and
then return to earth with a better life. In the end everybody dies, the
Balinese seem to know this better than anyone.

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The Balinese believe that
occasionally the soul might not be able to leave this world because it is still
used to its previous life. If this happens, the soul might stay at its previous
house to haunt the family, which is something no one wants to happen. This is
why the Balinese try their hardest to confuse the soul to make sure it gets to
the realm of god. The rocking around of the bull and the tower, the loud music
and the tourists all contribute to this confusion. The community also has to
make sure that the soul is not captured by demons. Balinese demons are slow and
not very smart, which makes it possible to outrun them. This is why the tower
never passes in a straight line and is sometimes moved around in circles,
demons are not very good with corners.

In order for the deceased to be reincarnated, they
must be cremated. Ngaben, the Balinese cremation process, allows the soul of
the deceased to leave its body and go to the realm of god. However, a Ngaben is
completely different from western cremation ceremonies. Right after a person’s
death the Balinese place the body in a temple facing the sea. The community
then decides on the date of cremation. Three days before the cremation, the
body is moved back to its former home. For the cremation process the Balinese
build a tall pagoda-like tower, made of bamboo, flowers, silk and more. This
tower can be very expensive, which is why the height of the tower depends on
the income and class of the family. The base of the tower is shaped like a
turtle entwined in snakes, this symbolizes the foundation of the world. During
the ceremony the body is put in a coffin and carried towards the tower. A few
men climb on top of the tower and lift the coffin about halfway up the structure.
The tower is then moved towards the cremation side in a procession while
flowers are thrown around. Some cremations also include a bull being rocked
around in front of the tower. When the cremation site is reached, the coffin
will be placed inside an even larger stationary bull, which is then lit on
fire.

The Balinese believe in
reincarnation, which they call Punarbwaha. Just like Indian Hindus, Balinese
Hindus believe that the souls of the deceased will return to earth, but in a
different body. Every time a person dies, their soul, or atman, is sent to the
realm of god. But to stay in this realm the atman would have to reach moksa,
which is the ultimate goal of the living. Once an atman has reached moksa, they
will have perfected their soul. But reaching moksa is not an easy task.
According to the Balinese, there are four paths leading to moksa. The first
path is called Brahmacari. During this first period the person has to gain as
much knowledge as possible. After that, the person will have to go through
Grehasta, which requires the person to get married without losing the knowledge
gained during Brahmacari. The third path or period to moksa is Wanaprehasta. This
step is about leaving the secular world. The last path is Bhiksuka. The ones
that have reached Bhiksuka have successfully left the secular world and are
able to spread their knowledge. But reaching this path requires the person to
be completely cut off from earthly needs, which can be achieved by meditation.
Because this step is so hard to complete, most atmans reincarnate and have to
try again to reach moksa. Depending on their karma, the sum of all their
actions in the previous life, the atman will have a better life in its next
body. 

Black clothes, white flowers
and crying faces are what one would commonly expect at a funeral. Western
civilization often views death as loss. The person we once loved is no longer
with us. However, not all funerals are sad occasions. Balinese cremations are
filled with laughter, loud music and colourful flowers. Children are running
around, people are chanting and few tears are shed. Overall it’s a very happy
occasion, which I know because I’ve seen a Balinese cremation. How come that
the Balinese seem to celebrate death instead of mourn it? To answer this
question one must first understand the Balinese concept of death.

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