Indonesia Banget #7: Death Ceremonies

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Just like what I have said in my top-5 monthly post, I am going to talk about something that related to Okuribito (a movie from Japan about death ceremony)

I can not cover ALL death ceremonies in Indonesia as all provinces have their own ways to honor the dead. I will share the most famous ones….well, at least famous amongst Indonesian.

There are 4 major religions in Indonesia; Islam, Christian, Buddha and Hindu… but, somewhere in between, there are still so many ancient beliefs, or religions based on their ancestors. For the 4 major religions,  the ways they treat their deceased are similar with those from other countries. Muslim will wrap the dead body in white fabric which we called Kafan, Christian will embalm the dead body and dress them in their best suit, and both Hindu and Buddha will cremate the dead body. However, there are some ceremonies taken place  before they buried the dead…this probably different to other countries.

This picture does not belong to me

When I went back to Padang (the capital of West Sumatra) last year, I saw their  tradition for the 1st time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take any pictures because  that will  be an inappropriate act. The moment someone was declared as someone who had passed away, the neighbors will start doing some errands, some will borrow some thick fabrics which embroiled  with passages from Quran (as most Padang people are Muslim) made  of golden thread…just like the one that covers Ka’bah (the most sacred  building for all Muslim around the world). Those fabrics are used to cover the walls in the room where the dead body is placed and as bed-sheet where the dead body is laying. All the neighbor  will help covering both walls and bed. While Other neighbor will start announcing that someone had passed away through Mosque’s loud speaker. What amazed me  is how quick those people worked! They won’t allow the family of the deceased to do anything. All they have to do is mourn for the dead.

After that, the next ceremony are  same with Muslim across the world. the family will clean the decease  and wrap him/her in nothing but along with Kafan.

Next to West Sumatra is North Sumatra, most people in this province are Christian. Once, one of my students told me about an interesting  death ceremony in her homeland. When her grandpa passed away, she and the rest of her family went to pay their respect. After the deceased is embalmed and dressed,they will keep the body in the living room for 7days. All the family members have  to sleep around the coffin. They will pray for him, sing songs that  praise Jesus and many things. What interest me is, of course, the fact that  all close family have to sleep near the dead body.

My friend told me the purpose of  the ‘7  days’ is for giving more chance to other family members who want to give  their last respect to the deceased and unable to come as fast as they can.

Now…let’s talk about the most interesting and famous death ceremonies in Indonesia!


Anyone who had been to Bali probably knew about NgabenNgaben is a Hindu tradition held by people in Bali. Ngaben is said to be a way to purify someone’s soul. According to their belief, human consist of body and soul. When someone died, it is only the body…the soul still lingers on the earth. To send the soul to heaven, they have  to cremate the body and perform Ngaben.

Ngaben ceremony is often called as Pelebon for the deceased, it is a  sacred and merry ceremony because they believe that the family is about to release their  love ones from any ties  with this world and send then to heaven and reincarnation.  This ceremony takes a lot of planning, effort, money, and time…that’s why Ngaben is often done long  after the decease had passed  away. Very rich people can easily do Ngaben because they can afford it,they will  only wait for the best day to do it. But for common people,they have to save up money years after the decease had passed away.

The body will be carried in Padma (The symbol of God”s house) and then moved to Pemalungan (a place  to burn the body in shape of a Cow). The priest will perform Pralina (burning with abstract fire which consist of mantra to purify the soul). After that,the real fire will burn the body along with the cow statue. The process will take about 1 hour. The ash will be  placed in Kelapa Gading (gading coconut)  and released in the sea as the sea is considered as the house of God.

The pictures DO NOT belong to me, both are taken from Topik Warna-Warni, he has so many pictures and I only chose 2 of them. you can see the rest of  the pictures by clicking the link to his page.

Rambu Solok

In Toraja (South Sulawesi), death ceremony, which is called as Rambu Solok, is the most expensive and important ritual. The richer and powerful the  decease the ceremony will be more expensive. Their religion is called Aluk. The ceremony will take few days to finish and invited thousands of  people. Just like Ngaben, Rambu Solok also held weeks or months after the deceased had passed away.

Toraja tribe believe that death isn’t something that come so suddenly,it is a process to go to Puya (the spirit world). Before they go to Puya, the body will be kept in tongkonan. The spirit of the deceased will stay in the village until the ceremony is over.

This picture belong to

Part of the ceremony is performing hamstrung on several buffaloes,but they are doing it while the buffalo is still standing and they let the blood squirt out. While doing this,the visitor will dance and sing and even try to catch the squirting blood. The head of the buffaloes will be lined  up as the ride that will be used by the soul of the deceased. The deceased is walked to the burial area in a line of people (see the picture)



Apart from the ceremony, Toraja is very famous with its burial place. they put the dead body in a rock hill. They put wood doll to represent the deceased.


That’s all for now, I’ll get back to this topic again when I already find more sources. Indonesia is a big country with hundreds of tradition that even people who live in Indonesia unable  to know them all.

23 thoughts on “Indonesia Banget #7: Death Ceremonies

  1. Very interesting, Novroz. The Ngaben tradition is something that I cannot imagine: you have the funeral years after the person has died. Do they keep the body in a sort of body house until the time has come for the ceremony? How does that work?

    In my country, the Netherlands, we have a Christian tradition, but sleeping next to the body for 7 days is not something we do. Some people (and in the old days everyone) do keep the body at home until it’s time for the funeral or cremation. But most dead are brought to a funeral home where they stay until the funeral (meanwhile they can be visited by family and friends).

    Thanks for another interesting topic.

    1. Ngaben and Rambu Solok are quite the same because those two ceremonies need a lot of money, those two will take years to conduct if they don’t have money. My friend,who is a Balinese, told me that they cremate the body without performing Ngaben, they kept the ash till they have both the time and money to do it.

      The 7 days tradition is held in North Sumatra,as far as I know (and I could be wrong too…will ask my friend later as I’m not a Javanese), Javanese Christian don’t do that tradition. They will only keep the body for few days till the funeral day comes.

      You’re welcome Judith,I’m glad you think this is interesting 🙂

  2. Your post is absoluetely fascinating and well done. Thank you so much. I have always bee interested in these ceremonies. In Switzeralnd people have more and more burials without priests, they do it themselves or hire someone for the eulogy. I was asked once if I wanted to become a professional writer and speaker of eulogies. I didn’t in the end. Some of the rituals change as wel. People scatter the ashes of the loved ones.

    1. Thank you Caroline.
      More burial without priest? is it because more people in Swiss has no religion?

      Why didn’t you do it? I always wonder about eulogy written by non-family member, how could they write about the deceased when they never knew the deceased before.

      1. I wouldn’t say people are not religious anymore just not Christians. And I have seen some burials with priest and they were not nice at all. No feeling, no beauty. In France it is a bit different. Catholic burials can be very nice. I didn’t want to do it because it isn’t a full time rpofession and it blocks anything else as you can not plan ahead. I went to a few of those burials to get an impression and some were done nicely. You visit the deceaseds famila the day before and they will tell everything they want you to say. If they want you to included the Bible or not and so on. There are also a few younger priest who would follow wishes. Like for a friend of mine whose husband died very young. She wanted the ceremony perfomed on a forest clearing and then scatter the ashes and the priest did it. But that is very rare. He is a nice priest, I know him.

        1. I have never been to any Christian burial in my life…in fact, I think I can count the total burials I’ve seen in my life in just one hand.
          That kind of burial sounds beautiful, it’s like returning to nature.

  3. This was great, Novroz! I learned a lot, including something about my own tradition: what stands out for you is that we Christians “dress them in their best suit”. Another phrase you could use is that we “dress them in their Sunday best”, meaning, the clothes one would wear to go to church. It never occurred to me — until you pointed it out — that that’s what we’re doing, as if our eternal encounter with the Almighty must begin with proper middle-class decorum. It makes me smile!

    Our country is becoming more multicultural, but I don’t expect to see any funeral processions headed up by severed buffalo parts anytime soon. We’re too afraid of death, whether of humans or of our suppers. I assume — hope — that the rest of those buffaloes are cooked up and served to the guests?

    1. Thank you Lavenderbay 🙂
      Thank you for telling me that phrase,I hope I don’t offend any Christians by saying “dress them in their best suit”. I wrote that because I often see it in movies how they try to choose the best suit the deceased had when he/she were still alive.

      Aluk (Toraja’s religion) is one of the oldest religions in my country, their tradition might seemed a bit barbaric but Thank God those meat were not wasted.They kept the head for funeral purpose but the meat were given to people who came to the funeral.
      Islam also has goat/cow sacrifice HOLY-day but we don’t do it in Aluk’s way and it isn’t for funeral purpose, it is for celebration.

      1. No offense taken, because (as you’ve observed in movies) that’s exactly what we do! What makes me smile is my cultural blind spot that you pointed out. As a member of the majority culture in my country, I’m sure I have an attitude towards many things — including burying someone in their Sunday best — that seem natural to me because I haven’t noticed any other way of doing those things.

        “Of COURSE you bury someone in their best clothes. What ELSE would you do?” Please note the use of “you” in that sentence, to mean “everyone”.
        The Torajan people are just as likely to say, “Of COURSE you serve a feast to the mourners of your dearly-departed family member. What ELSE would you do?” Well, we of one of the richest countries in the world generally set out a plate or two of semi-stale sandwiches. We could learn a lot from the Torajans!

  4. Very interesting! I don’t know the complicated ways of burying someone.Here it is without a special ceremony.I remember when my grandpa died.I was 12 years old and one morning a friend of our family came to us to tell what has happened.My Grandpa had a heart attack and died at night.We drove to my Grandma and my Grandpa was at the undertaker.He was brought there directly from the hospital.The funeral director asked my Grandma what she wanted to have.How many people will come to the funeral and how many cards she needed to tell all friends the sad news.If she wanted to have a newspaper notice and what she wanted to read on the floral wreath.My Grandpa was lying at the undertaker until a few days later the funeral started.We couldn’t see his dead body again.The coffin was closed.The pastor delivered a speech in the chapel with a few words of the bible and the organ played a sad melody.After this the coffin was rolled, on a table with rolls, to the grave where 6 men took the coffin and let it down.The 6 men threw their gloves on the coffin, cause the flowers and the earth next to the grave are only for the bereaved.Flowers are only for the women and the earth with a shovel for the men.Everyone threw a flower or earth on the coffin and that’s it!The queue is first family, started with the widow and then children and so on.I was the second, cause my Grandma was so sad that she needed my hand to calm down.After this we went to a restaurant with all the friends and eat something.I don’t like our way to mourn.It’s no real tradition like in your country.100 years ago it was a bit different here.But nowaday it has to go as fast as possible.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story Claud. It is quite the same in the city, no real tradition.
      These traditions are still maitained in the rural area or small village, the people in the city tend to do just like what you have describe. I guess the more modern the people are the easier the way they take care of their deceased

  5. What an interesting post, Novroz! a bit morbid, but fascinating!
    poor bulls I have to say!!
    I am from a country with lots of Muslims, so I am familiar with the tradition of using white clothes or carpets to burry the deceased in. They would also slaughter a few sheep for the deceased and cook pilav for everybody invited. The burial usually takes place the next morning after the death.
    The idea of waiting for a few months to burry bodies sounds a bit strange to me. Where do they keep them? They must smell a lot as Indonesia is a quite a hot and humid country.
    It sounds a bit too businesslike to hire a special person to speak on behalf of the family of a deceased. Not very personal. and the way bodies are left with undertakers and not brought home.. its very sad .. check this out! weird, isn’t it??

    1. Thank you, Irina. Old ceremonies are always interesting, aren’t they.

      For Muslim, we don’t do much ceremony, we only wrapped the deceased with with fabric. But Indonesia is very vast, many people still have their own ancestor’s religion or belief. Which country do you come from, Irina? I can tell from your name that you are from one of the countries that used to be part of Soviet, but which one is it? (makes me wonder how you two met 😉 )

      Where to keep the body is something I haven’t read, but they are people of old traditions so I believe they have certain herbs to keep the deceased from smelling badly. One of death ceremonies in a remote tribe, I forgot which tribe, have another interesting way to keep their deceased. They simply put the body in a specific area…the amazing thing is, the body will rot but no smell comes out it. People think that the tree around that area keep the body from smelling.

      The link you gave me is quite interesting. Beautiful coffins.

  6. I will tell you how we met and where i am originally from in a differesnt post someday.. just doesnt feel right to speak about our love story in teh comments to a death related post 😉

    1. Hahaha you got a point there, Irina 😉
      Maybe you can talk about it here > Malam Bainai: , it is about a tradition before wedding that takes place in West Sumatra. You can also share how Irish perform their wedding ceremony 😉

  7. These were all very, very interesting. There are bits and pieces of them that sound like things I see in movies from Thailand and China too, (especially the part about 7 days for a spirit to linger) so much of these customs must be based on similar ideas, I’m thinking.

    But those last two… I had never heard anything like them before. Ngaben and Rambu Solok are so different from anything else I have ever seen anywhere. Thank you for sharing these with us Novia!

    1. I think Asians are same in some ways…no matter which part of Asia they lived. That”s why some customs often similar…even food also similar in some cases.

      Glad you like the last 2…those are really special and we can only find it in Bali and Toraja. They kept the tradition for many years even at modern time like now. and I admire them for that.

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