Village of the Dead

Carla Albertí de La Rosa travels to one of the world’s most unusual cemeteries

Although the Balinese have a long tradition of cremation to ease the soul of the deceased in his or her way to the afterlife, the remote village of Trunyan on the eastern shore of Kintamani’s Lake Batur follows a very different funeral ritual that has been carried on for more than eight centuries.

The people of Trunyan don’t cremate or bury the deceased like other Hindu Balinese do. They leave the bodies in the open air to decompose under a sacred tree, the Taru Menyan. Unusually, there is no stench from the decayed bodies.

Trunyan is squeezed tightly between the lake and the outer crater rim of Batur, 66 kilometres northeast of Denpasar. Its inhabitants assert to be the descendants of the original Balinese, the Bali Aga. The Bali Aga predated the arrival of the Hindu Majapahit kingdom that ruled Java for two centuries since the end of the 13th century.

Trunyanese believe they have to follow their ancestors and continue with their traditions and rituals. “We have inherited our customs and breaking them would bring bad luck to all of us,” Wayan, the village chief, told The Bali Times.

The village was only accessible by boat until an asphalt road was built four years ago to connect it to the adjacent communities. Half a kilometre away from Trunyan is the village cemetery and the only way to access it is by boat. When someone dies one person will carry the deceased to the cemetery, paddling in a small boat that looks like a canoe. The rest will follow from behind on a bigger craft.

But this cemetery is only for the bodies of married people who die from natural causes. The rest – those who die from illnesses or accidents – are buried in a cemetery nearby. The women from Trunyan are not allowed to go to the cemetery when a dead body is brought there as it is believed they will bring calamity to the village.

The Trunyanese place the bodies in bamboo cages above the ground to protect them from wild animals.

“This person died three days ago,” said Wayan, pointing at the body of a middle-aged man covered with a white cloth. The only visible part of the body was his head, partly covered by ants and other insects. Although not embalmed, there was no smell.

The Trunyanese are convinced it’s the more than 1,000-year-old Taru Menyan – which means “fragrant tree” – that absorbs the stench of death. “This tree has a very strong fragrance and it neutralises the smell of the dead bodies,” Wayan said.

The cemetery had around 10 bamboo cages, one for each corpse. If someone dies and they don’t have any more space, they will remove the oldest body. The skull will be placed on an altar-like stone wall at the base of the sacred tree, providing the family of the deceased has performed a ceremony. If not, the skull is cast onto a pile of litter until the ceremony is held. If the skull is damaged, a femur will be placed on the stone instead.

Plates, bowls, glasses and baskets cover the ground at the cemetery. “All the items that are used in the cemetery as part of the funerary rites must be kept here forever; otherwise it will bring misfortune,” said Wayan.

The bamboo enclosures contain personal items of the dead such as combs, toothbrushes and sandals so they can use them in their next life.

“It’s hard to believe a body that has been rotting for days doesn’t smell,” a 31-year-old visitor from Jakarta said.

“It actually smells when you get off the boat, 50 meters away from the cemetery, but once you’re in and right next to the corpses, it smells of nothing,” she added.

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