Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dying In Isaan - A Buddhist Funeral

Things have been very busy here in Udonthani for us. Besides reviewing and editing many but not quite all the photographs from the photography shoot in Maehongson region the first week of this month, we went to Bangkok to visit the American Embassy to deal with US Federal Income Tax Return issue, and to obtain a document required to extend my visa to remain in Thailand for another year. Sounds simple enough but to complete the 20 minute task at the Embassy required an eight and one-half hour bus journey to Bangkok, and overnight stay to be ready to report at my appointment time of 08:30 A.M. followed then by an 8.5 hours trip back by bus to Udonthani. We have made this trip by overnight bus with an immediate return after our Embassy appointment but it is brutal and travelling by bus at night is not as safe as travelling during the day. There is no problem with violence at night. The problem is buses tend to run into or off of things during the night. Spending a night in a hotel and travelling by day is easier on the body as well as the mind. To underscore this concern, the day after upon our return, we drove out to Tahsang Village for "Songpoo Day". Along the main road to Bangkok just outside of Kumphawapi there was a bus in a rice paddy - all smashed up and partially burned. It did not look good at all. Later we found out that no one had been killed but many people were hospitalized.

We returned to Tahsang Village the day after Songpoo Day for "Bang Fei" - rocket launchings. Photographs from both days had to be reviewed and edited. Both days will also be included in blog entries - someday.

On top of all these activities, we have been experiencing intermittent Internet access issues. The rainy season is rapidly approaching and we get a good thundershower at least every other day now. Rain and accompanying wind seem to knock out Internet access at the house. TOT has customer service numbers but does not answer the phone. Eventually service gets restored - between 2 hours to 48 hours.

On top of all of this I am busy with paperwork for finally closing on the sale of the house in California. Finally it has been sold.

To further complicate time management and occupy our time, Thailand is celebrating "Songkran", Thai New Year's - a very big family orientated 4 to 6 day holiday.

Yesterday however was not a day for celebration. We went to Tahsang Village to attend the funeral of an old woman from the village. The woman was the mother-in-law of one of Duang's friends. I first met the woman in January of this year. I had photographed her as she was preparing to chew some betel nut. I have often written about the sense of community and lack of privacy here in Isaan. This woman was no exception to these facts. Duang was fond of the woman and was very sympathetic towards her. During their conversation, I learned that the woman had breast cancer and had recently been operated on. As if to validate what Duang was translating the woman, without any prompting on my part, showed me her mastectomy. I was taken aback at this unabashed gesture on her part. Later during the chat under the glaring hot sun, she removed both the towel and ski toque from her head. It was plain to see that in addition to surgery she had also undergone chemotherapy. It was touching to observe the sense of caring and love between Duang and this impoverished old lady. Many of the people in Tahsang Village are poor but this woman was poorer than them so I use the term "impoverished". She was the widow of a poor subsistence farmer and lived alone in a ramshackle hut in the village.

Two weeks ago we visited her at her home in the village. Her health had deteriorated significantly. She was outside laying on a saht (woven reed mat) underneath the thatched roof of the raised wood platform outside of the house. Family members, friends, and neighbors surrounded her attending to her and keeping her company. Children wandered around or played in close proximity to her. It was apparent that end was approaching for her. True to form, and practise here in Isaan, she despite being in at times a semi-conscious state, willing shared her condition. Her cancer had returned and whereas in January when her chest looked healthy her chest was swollen and had dark mass protruding from it. Duang and I paid our respects to her for what was to be the last time.

Three days ago, she died. She died at home like most of the villagers in Isaan do when their time has arrived. Upon her death, her family contacted the Monks of the village Wat who helped with the arrangements. Her family tended to her body and she remained inside of her home. She was placed inside of a simple white coffin which had only a couple of decorations on it. This white coffin was placed inside of an elaborately decorated refrigerated outer coffin. The refrigerated coffin plugged into an electrical outlet and preserved her body for the next three days.

We returned to her home yesterday morning under a hot and blazing sun around 12:15 P. M. Outside of the home, two rented canopies had been erected along with the permanent platform. Underneath one canopy there were several card games going. Gambling is not legal in Thailand so the money on the floor must have been some means for determining "points" in the games. The players were not loud or boisterous. Although they were not visibly grieving, they were not celebrating. Their demeanor other than intensive focusing on the game was solemn. Prior to going to the funeral I had asked Duang about what to expect. Like most Westerners, I have largely avoided going to funerals and of the few that I have attended have all been Christian never Buddhist rites. Duang said that there was a little bit of sadness at first because the woman had died but not too much because she was old. On a more personal level, Duang informed me that the woman had been very poor, had not had a good life, and now she would not be suffering any more. More importantly, the woman now had the opportunity to come some day for a better life.

This attitude is apparently a reflection of Buddhist philosophy and beliefs. I never saw any demonstration of emotion, or grief throughout the ceremony. The belief in reincarnation, and therefore the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth until Enlightenment is achieved removes much of the finality that Christianity associates with death. We speak of life everlasting and being reunited after our time is completed on Earth but we behave much differently when someone does pass on. What I did see all afternoon long during this Buddhist ritual was caring, solemn, and respectful consideration for the departed person. It appeared that just about the entire village showed up and many of them participated directly in the funeral.

In side the woman's home, several Monks, and family members were seated on the floor with the body inside of a refrigerated coffin. Atop the rented cooler, an 11" x 14" framed photograph of the woman which appeared to be taken off of her National I D card, an artificial flower arrangement, some candles, and some plants were placed as a sort of altar. The Monks appeared to have completed their meal. The Monks and people inside chanted some prayers. People underneath the awning closest to the house joined in the chanting.

After the chanting a young man drove a farm truck up alongside of the home. Other men started taking pieces of ornate sculpted gold colored wood out of the house and placed it in the truck. Later personal affects such as cushions, and bags of clothing were added to this truck.

Off to the other side of the house, an older man was sweeping out the back of a farm truck. After cleaning out the truck, he backed it up to the house. Several village men that I knew and recognized went into the home. They carried the the refrigerated coffin out of the home and respectfully placed it in the back of the farm truck. By now all the card games had ceased and people dressed mostly in dark clothing started to form up around the truck transporting the body. Five Monks appeared and went to the front of the truck. A man produced a long white rope that was attached to the truck. The other end of the rope was held by each Monk in the lead followed by several people that appeared to be relatives. The remainder of the people followed escorting the truck that transported the body. The second truck of personal possessions joined the procession. The woman's daughter carrying the photograph of the deceased walked alongside the truck. One of the village men carried an ornate pressed metal offering bowl filled with puffed rice and sprinkled it along the route. Many people carried offerings for the Monks.

The procession slowly marched to the Wat inside of Tahsang Village with the silence of procession occasionally interrupted by the staccato of firecrackers. The funeral procession circled the Wat's crematorium three times. Most of the people upon completing the circumambulation of the crematorium entered the simple temple next to the crematorium and sat upon sahts placed on the blue tiled floor. Other villagers, who had not participated in the procession were congregated underneath the elevated bot protected from the beating sun.

Some of the village men removed the refrigerated coffin from the truck and carefully placed it on the concrete slab in front of the crematorium. It was opened and the simple white coffin was removed and carried up the stairs to the doors of the furnace. The coffin was placed upon two metal sawhorses. Some other men then unloaded the meager amount of personal possessions from the second farm vehicle and placed them alongside of the crematorium.

People then went into the simple temple where offerings were made to the nine seated Monks. Like the number three, nine is a very good number in Buddhist beliefs. Nine Monks is considered to be a good number for occasions such as weddings, house blessings, and funerals. During the offering ceremony, two young girls passed out small containers of chilled orange drink and later gave each person a small glass of iced fruit drink - welcomed refreshment on a very hot and humid afternoon. The offering ceremony appeared to be like so many of the other ceremonies that I have attended for all kinds of different reasons. I did notice that at one point, there appeared to be some confusion as to which Monk would lead the Monk's chants. The local Monk, that I refer to as "Rocket Man" because his knowledge and involvement of launching local gunpowder fueled rockets, ended up leading the chants in conjunction with another Monk.

There were a couple of times where the Monks were not in synch with their chanting. Later I found out why. The five monks that lead the way for the truck carrying the body were not full-time "professional" Monks. They were two of the woman's sons, two grandsons, and a nephew. In Isaan, and I assume the rest of Thailand, sons and grandsons shave their heads, and shave their eyebrows, and don Monk's clothing to honor and take care of the deceased person. In Thailand, all men are expected to become Monks at some point in their life - typically around the age of 18 to 25 years old dependent upon the family's ability to pay for the ordination ceremony. As such, men in Isaan are very familiar with the chants and rituals. They are familiar but not necessarily proficient at the chanting thus explaining the confusion during this funeral ritual.

In observing the ritual, I did not see anyone that I would consider to be a "professional" in these matters. There was no obvious funeral director or mortuary representatives. Once in awhile the local Monk provided a little direction to the local men but for all intentions it appeared that the lay people were handling the rites. I asked Duang about this and found out that it was the villagers and family that handle the funeral activities with guidance from the Monks. There is no "big company" involved in the funeral. The family washes and prepares the body. Villagers, friends, and neighbors pay their respects by handling other activities. Once again I have witnessed a strong sense of community in Isaan.

I am now well know about the village and surrounding area so I was encouraged by many people to go about and photograph the ceremony. The people were always motioning me forward to photograph some new aspect of the rites even when it exceeded what I thought would be respectful detachment. It was so interesting to observe and I made a great effort to be respectful while seeing and learning as much as I could.

After the offerings were completed in the temple, some men set up the open coffin for the next part of the ritual. The woman lay in her coffin clad in the simple clothing typical of a Lao Loum farmer. Her hands were clasped in the prayer position with three joss sticks and a small yellow candle between her hands as if she was making an offering to Buddha. Her favorite pakama (long plaid cotton strip of cloth) was bundled and placed by the side of her head which was supported by a small Isaan style pillow.

A young man produced several green coconuts and used a long knife to cut off the tops to exact the clear liquid inside. Another man had several pieces of bamboo about 18 inches long with a ring of colored ribbon strung through the slanted top. These tubes were like the tubes filled with cooked sticky rice with bananas that are for sale alongside of the roads.

By now the family had appeared and climbed up the steps of the crematorium to where the coffin rested. They started taking the coconuts and emptying the contents into the coffin as well as from the bamboo tubes. Curious I climbed the stairs to see what actually was going on. One of the men gave me a bamboo tube and motioned me to go ahead and tend to the body. I lifted the bamboo to my nose to determine what was the liquid was. The bamboo tube was filled with scented water. I went to the coffin and started to poured the liquid on the torso of the body. The man motioned to me that I should pour it on the face which I did with the remaining liquid. I later found out from Duang that everyone in Isaan has their face "washed" with coconut liquid because everyone likes coconut water and it cleans the face.

The remainder of the people including many children of all ages had now lined up at the foot of the stairs. At the base of the stairway there were two large bowls with little packets made out of bamboo strips and paper with a small yellow offering candle. Each person took one of these things and placed it upon the body when they paid their last respects. While this was going on, a man started a small fire out of twigs and leaves at the back end of the crematorium just off of the concrete slab. He and a couple other men added some cardboard boxes and plastic bags to the fire. These meager items from a life now completed were the favorite items such as saht, cosmetics, toothbrush, comb, and clothing were being burned to accompany the woman on her journey. A woman from atop the crematorium platform tossed handfuls of penny candy and one baht coins wrapped in colored paper to the people - reminiscent of the act done for a newly ordained Monk.

After people had paid their respects, local villagers poked holes in the plastic liner of the coffin to drain the coconut water and scented water. The coffin was then placed inside of the furnace. The coffin and body was sprinkled with benzene and the furnace door was closed. The furnace was ignited and as the first wisps of smoke came out of the crematorium chimney, the sky darkened with the sound of thunder rapidly approaching. By the time we walked back to Duang's parent's house the village was hit by a furious thunderstorm.

Duang indicated to me that the family was very poor. Rental of the refrigerated coffin was 800 baht ($22.85 USD). A falang (foreigner) who is married to a Tahsang village woman donated the water and soft drinks that were offered to the Monks. A local man had donated some money to pay the funeral. Duang told me that the funeral was small and that people with more money would have a bigger funeral with more talking.

For me a richer family could not have had a grander or better funeral. This ritual was simple, touching, and very dignified. I was very impressed with the sense of caring, sense of community and respect exhibited by all the people. It was interesting as well as reassuring to see how the people took care of each other with dignity and compassion.


  1. Hi Allen,

    I just found this blog today (actually, my wife found it in a google search for information about food and drink for a Lao cookbook she's writing).

    I attended 3 different funeral ceremonies in Laos, two Buddhist ceremonies and an animist one (Khmu).

    The last one was in a small remote Khmu village in the mountains near Nale, Luang Namtha province. The deceased was a 12 year old boy, died as result of (probably) a dysentery like disease.

    We had just arrived in the village, the first ever falang visitors to that village (I said 'remote') The villagers received us gracefully, made us a meal, found us a place to stay then apologised and said they'd talk to us later because they first had a funeral to go to. Upon finding that I was a photographer, the village headman insisted that i'd come along and photograph the funeral. I was reluctant, but really had my arm twisted and had no alternative.

    The mother and grandmother expressed their emotions very vocally and freely, during the wake, then during the walk into the forest where the boy was buried. The simple coffin consisting of two halves of a hollowed out tree trunk. Most of the male attendants had been drinking heavily during the wake, and were singing loud and boisterous songs, maybe to trick the spirits (?).

    A spirit house was built above the grave. After the return to the village the attendants were 'cleansed by an old lady who brushed their bare backs with some twigs dipped in water, then everyone was given two shots of LaoLao, and that was the end of it.

    The buddhist ceremonies I photographed were quite different. The ceremony for an old man with a big family was somewhat similar to the one you describe, Sons donning robes for one day and having their heads shaved. Ceremony lead by an older senior monk from the local temple. Similar, body carried on a decorated farm tractor, with a procession behind it. Only the female mourners on the way to the forest pyre were wearing white clothes.

    From my memory, not may people appeared to express sadness (Maybe with exception of the widow), and indeed some of the three day event was a bit carnival like atmosphere. Lots of food and drink, card playing etc.
    Again, I was expressly invited to photograph, since I was know as photographer in the village.

    The second Buddhist ceremony concerned a beautiful young woman, 25 year old, died suddenly as result of acute kidney failure. Her close family was very upset and made no efforts at concealing this during the three days of the ceremony. This was held in a temple in the capital. The close relatives slept with the coffin in a on the temple grounds. A 'camp' kitchen was set up outside to feed the crowds. No alcohol was consumed here, probably because it was on temple grounds. But a few groups in the evening were playing cards, and a television and dvd player brought in to keep the children entertained (With violent hollywood movies)

    I think maybe the Buddhist philosophy about returning to a new life, combined with older age of the deceased makes people more accepting of death, while when a young person dies suddenly and prematurely, it is harder to feel that acceptance.

    I have as yet not published my photographs of these three ceremonies,, but some of my other documentary you can find on my website.
    I look forward to reading more of your blog in the next few weeks.

  2. This is great information our team always love to learn more information about funeral practices in other countries.

    Legacy Funerals-Spanish Fork Mortuary and Cremation Services



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