The Magic Tree of Bali’s Skull Island

Human skulls decomposing above the ground in the village of Trunyan on the island of Bali

Trunyan village in Bali, Indonesia
 island in Indonesia is known for its beautiful beaches, crystal waters, and dazzling tropical landscapes. The village of Trunyan, however, practices a not-so tourist-friendly tradition that may come as a surprise to the island’s usual sunseekers.

The Trunyan villagers leave their dead to decompose above the ground, setting them afloat in canoes on the village’s small crater lake. Afraid to burn the bodies for fear of angering the volcano that sits above the area, the Trunyans believe that the ritual is the ultimate sign of respect for the dead.

With the bodies of loved ones washing ashore on Trunyan’s two above-ground cemeteries, it is natural to assume that the air would be filled with a horrible stench. This is where the magic of Skull Island comes into play.

Human skulls decomposing above the ground in the village of Trunyan on the island of Bali

Dead Person decomposing above the ground under a sacred tree in the village of Trunyan on the island of Bali
Photo credit: Yusuf IJsseldijk

There is no smell of death or decay permeating the air. In fact, the village feels almost reverent in its dignified calm and free from the smell of rotting flesh. Villagers credit an old, towering tree for the lack of stench. The tree called Taru Menyan, which means “fragrant tree,” looks like an old banyan – stately and covered in years of moss and tangled branches. It stands guard over the island and its cemeteries, giving off a pleasant smell that somehow overpowers the smell of rot and death.

The people of Trunyan do not question the magic of the tree. They simply rely on it to watch over the bodies of their departed family members until they fully decompose and move to a nearby permanent resting place.

The villagers find the practice of open-air funeral ritual oddly comforting, giving credit to the tree for the serenity and peace they feel on the island. “This tree is magic,” says one villager. “At home, the bodies would smell. Here, it’s only because of the tree [that they don’t].”

In a world where death is a certainty for everyone, the Trunyan people of Skull Island have found a way to embrace it with respect – and a little help from a magic tree.