Bowie’s Ngaben: a multi-part two week Buddhist death ritual of celebration and sorrow.
David Bowie's will was expected to be unique, and it did not disappoint, carrying a number of interesting final requests of the legendary singer. One of the more stand out requests was the instruction by the singer detailing his own cremation. Bowie wanted his body to be cremated in Bali according to the Buddhist rituals prevailing in the place. If it was not possible to cremate, the caveat said, his ashes should be scattered there.
Bowie loved Bali, and by extension Indonesia. His love for this Indonesian province harks back to the visit to the country with his collaborator and friend Iggy Pop. The feeling was recounted in the Tumble and Twirl 1984 song. The lyrics betray no indication that Bowie observed in any manner of an Ngaben, a traditional cremation ceremony followed by the Balinese. His will, however, clearly displayed his love for the ritual.
The Ngaben is a multi-part ritual and mixes celebration with sorrow. It continues for nearly two weeks. The Ngaben is unique to Bali, and is a fusion of orthodox Hindu beliefs with snatches of Buddhism and the local animist religions. The name of the ritual is derived from ngabu or ngabuin, meaning “turn to ash.
In case a family has the wish to conduct a Ngaben, the primary step is to consult a priest. The priest will determine the day when the ceremony will be held. The family, during the interim period, will build a Wadah, a structure resembling a tower and made of bamboo, papier-mache and wood. They will also build a sarcophagus of an ox shape-called a Lembu. If the family has royal connections or be of high caste, then more elaborate ceremonies, termed Pelebon, are done. In that case, the Lembu will resemble other animals like a dragon or a lion.
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At ceremonial day, the deceased's body is kept in Wadah and transported to creation site. A procession will accompany it, and there will be parade-like and joyful atmosphere. The Ngaben is a time when celebrations are held to assist the deceased to move on to their next life. It is no wonder that the procession has an orchestra accompanying it. Large number of mourners carry offerings and suitable memorials for the person who has died. After the body of the deceased reaches the site of cremation, the body is then transferred to Lembu. It will then be burned under the supervision of a priest. The ashes will be scattered into a river or a sea 12 days later as a final purification act.