Burning Buffaloes

The burn is on. Understandably so, as it’s once again the season for mass cremations. Bali-style.DSC03331

The greater metropolitan area of Ubud (I never imagined I’d write those words five years ago), along with villages around the island, sees this annual tradition get under way, through the peak season of July and August, as a slew of banjars hold their communal cremation ceremonies.

DSC03357After weeks of preparations, cleansing, prayer, meditation, and consultations with the priest (and his wife); when my landlord becomes unreachable, when the neighborhood laundromat remains indefinitely closed, and when the local men step out in sunshades and matching outfits – including festive sarong duos and dark t-shirts with the word “Cremation” emblazoned on the front – it’s clear that the festivities are about to begin.DSC03579

Cremations are a visual and auditory feast; with lavishly decorated offerings piled high, processions of sarongs and kebayas in every color under the sun – all to the accompaniment of a chosen few locals reading out holy words over a public speaker system, the priest’s blessings,  the puppet master’s knocks and antics, the Topeng dance performance, and the gong-heavy and tinkling sounds produced by the banjar’s gamelan groups. When everything strikes up simultaneously – so that it’s virtually impossible to follow any single activity – the onslaught on the sDSC03689enses is both exhilarating  and dizzying.

But so is it a smelly affair, if you find yourself downwind from the intense heat and stench of burning flesh and bones. The corpses, unearthed early in the morning, are shrouded in white sacred cloth and queued up for a burning by… powerful jets spewing out of kerosene burners. At both ends. DSC03437

Later in the day, when the effigies, offerings, clothing, paper replicas of objects held dear by (or representing) the deceased and other chosen personal items have all been blessed by the priest’s assistants and placed inside the buffalo-sarcophaDSC03675gi, the whole lot of them are engulfed, almost at once, in flames, shooting plumes of smoke and ash skyward, and into the crowds gathered.

This ceremony, an affair that as usual may stretch into weeks if not months, has not yet wrapped up. Two weeks later, the villagers are scheduled to accompany the last of the ashes and offerings to the beach, for a final release of the deceased’s soul to a higher realm and possible reincarnation.DSC03840

In the busy-ness of daily life in Ubud, it takes a village, a cremation and the unwavering locus of its spiritual life, to coax me into a slower pace, set aside my work, Zumba classes, morning swim, social life and adventures, and be grateful for life – and for the reminder of where in the world I really am.

More of my cremation photos right… here!




  1. It really does have to be seen (and smelt) to be believed! I love how the ashes are then placed in to coconut shells and then put in to the sea to drift away for eternity. A wonderful custom and so much more splendid and celebratory than a trip to a grey, featurless crematorium in the UK

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