Thursday, December 31, 2009

Death In Isaan, Another Lao Loum Funeral

Three days ago, one of Duang’s Aunts died. She died at home like most of the villagers in Isaan do when their time has arrived. She died at 65 years of age from complications of diabetes which is a medical condition that many Lao Loum people suffer with. Upon her death, her family contacted the Monks of the village Wat who helped with the arrangements for her funeral.

Her family cleansed and tended to her body prior to her laying in repose inside of her home. She was placed inside of a simple white coffin atop a woven reed mat (saht) – most likely woven by her. She was dressed in typical Lao Loum woman’s clothing – a straight heavy cotton ankle length skirt, I guess that it is actually a sarong, with intricate geometric patterns and a simple fitted tunic style cotton blouse. A colorful square cotton pillow, called a morn, with intricate designs was placed underneath her head. Her pakama, a versatile strip of cotton fabric that is used as a head cover, handkerchief, belt, towel, as well as a shoulder adornment was placed underneath as well as alongside of her head. On one of her wrists there were several strings of plain cotton string similar to butcher’s string that were tied around her wrist during a Bai Sii ceremony. The strings were tied around her wrist, in the Animist belief, to bind the 32 spirits that are contained within people and required to maintain good health. The Bai Sii ceremony is also used to wish people good luck and prosperity. On her other wrist was a nylon string crocheted bracelet that is typically placed by a Buddhist Monk during any merit making ritual. My understanding is that this bracelet serves the same purpose as the cotton strings placed during a Bai Sii ritual. In Isaan, many of the rituals and beliefs from the Animist, Brahman and Hindu religions have been assimilated and adopted into the Buddhist rituals. The deceased woman’s hands were placed into a wai (position similar to traditional Western praying position) with a single yellow candle between her clasped hands. The candle is about the size of a typical birthday cake candle is used as an offering during merit making rituals. The white coffin was placed inside of an elaborately decorated refrigerated outer metal container that is rented for the mourning period. The refrigerated container is plugged into an electrical outlet in the main room of the home and preserved her body for the next three days.

Yesterday we planned on spending the entire day at the Elementary School Field Day, a sort of Olympics, just outside of Tahsang Village. We did not get word of the Aunt’s death until we had already left Udonthani for the student games. The funeral ritual was to start at noon and we were asked to attend. There is an extremely strong sense of family in Isaan as well as the Lao Loum culture so we were obliged to pay our respects – literally and figuratively. Duang suggested that we go to Nongdahn Village for the start of the funeral rites, pay our respect, and make a donation before returning to the student games. I was not so sure. I had attended one Isaan funeral before for one of the Tahsang Village women. Like most interesting things, I like to experience it more than once to fully understand and appreciate it. I have been to Machu Picchu twice – the second time to take the photos that I didn’t take the first time. It took three trips to the Grand Canyon to fully appreciate or comprehend its magnificence. I have been to Maehongson four times – so far. An invitation to attend another Lao Loum funeral seemed to be just such an opportunity to better understand the ritual. I asked Duang to keep an open mind which she did. We attended the entire funeral ritual and missed out on the soccer and volleyball competitions.

We stopped in Tahsang Village and picked up two of Duang’s Aunts and arrived at the deceased’s home at Noon. Outside of the home, five rented canopies had been erected along side of the home and in the backyard. Underneath two canopies in the front yard, tables and plastic chairs were set up for serving meals to funeral attendees. The two canopies were occupied by women. A canopy on the side of the house was occupied by men. Lao Loum men and women sit separately at Buddhist rituals and many social functions. On the tables were large bottles of soft drinks and large bottles of beer. At the men’s tables, the men had a couple bottles of Kao Lao (a brand of moonshine whiskey also known as Lao Lao) that they were hitting pretty strongly. The other two canopies covered cooking stations where mounds of food were being prepped and cooked for the funeral guests. Several charcoal fires and propane gas burners were blazing away with pots of rice, soups, and boiling concoctions. At a small desk just to the side of the door into the house, there was a bowl where people made their offerings. A person recorded the name and amount of the donation. The money as well as the ledger would later be offered to the Monks at the Wat as part of the ritual. Donating money to the Monks at a funeral earns merit for the deceased as well as for you. The money is used to maintain the Wat – the center of village religious and social life.

We made our way to the tables and canopies to “take care” (say hello and pay our respects) of guests and family members. Paying respects to people is extremely important in the Lao Loum culture. I am honored and often amused when parents have their children – many of them as young as one year old perform the deferential “wai” greeting to me. I must admit that it is this sense of social responsibility and awareness that enhances the quality of life here.

Although many of the women were dressed in black, there was not a great sense of mourning amongst the people. At the first funeral that I attended some people were playing cards. There was no card playing at this funeral. Being a foreigner and often the only foreigner at family events and local celebrations, we often get a great deal of attention. One of the men, I believe a brother in law of the deceased woman who also had been hitting the Lao Kao, offered me drinks of whiskey. Since I was driving and the Police had already been setting up roadblocks on the roads in anticipation of New Years Eve, I politely declined – several times – every time that he offered a drink! He then asked me several questions about funerals in America – all made more difficult by the fact that he was asking in the Lao dialect which I don’t speak at all and Duang was often preoccupied with conversation with others. The worst part of these events is not being able to be courteous and converse with people easily. Somehow we all managed and I spoke to him as well as others regarding Christian funerals. As much as I am interested in Isaan’s culture and traditions the people there were just as interested in my culture. When I told him that many people cry at Christian funerals, he told me that they do not cry so I could cry for them if I wanted to. When I told the people about mortuaries, morticians, and underground burial they were shocked.

The lack of emotion at funerals is apparently a reflection of Buddhist philosophy and beliefs. I never saw any demonstration of emotion, or grief throughout the ceremony just as I had not at the previous funeral. 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 actually 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.

I had to take pictures of some of the guests – they insisted. One woman was a little embarrassed to smile because she was missing several teeth. She told my wife that she wanted a foreign husband. I honestly told her that she was number 78 on my list of foreign husbands to find. She was concerned about missing some teeth. I had her show me how many teeth were missing and I assured her through Duang that some foreign men like women who were missing teeth. She got my rather ribald joke, a remnant of my university days, and laughed like crazy. The Isaan sense of humor prevails at all times.

We were offered food and soft drinks. I ate some of the typical Lao Loum foods served at celebrations – chopped up raw beef with chilies, cilantro, and garlic, sticky rice, and raw Chinese cabbage. My new friend with the missing teeth asked how the food was, I responded in Lao that it was very tasty and then told her through Duang that you didn’t need teeth to eat it. The woman laughed like crazy.

Inside the woman's home, several Monks, 19 to be exact, and family members were seated on the floor with the body inside of the refrigerated container. Atop the rented container, a large artificial flower arrangement, some candles, three cloth bags filled with something, some buckets of offerings to be made to the Monks, and some plants were placed as a sort of altar. Of to the side of the container an 11" x 17" framed photograph of the woman which appeared to be taken off of her National I D card was supported by a tripod stand. The Monks and people inside chanted some prayers. People underneath the awnings joined in the chanting. Duang’s Aunt was not as poor as the other woman that we attended funeral. A deceased person earns merit by having more Monks participating in the funeral ritual. Another important consideration is that the total number of Monks can’t be divisible by 2 – hence 19 rather than 18 or 20. Duang’s Aunt did not have any sons – only daughters so some of the Monks were her Grandsons and Nephews. In Thai culture, a son shaves his head, shaves his eyebrows, dons Monk’s clothing, and becomes a Monk for the three days between his parent’s death and their cremation. This act earns merit for the deceased to help them in their next life.

If parents do not have sons, grandsons and nephews take on the responsibility and duty to the deceased. I spoke to Duang in regards to me and she readily offered up that her son, our grandson – Peelawat, and her cousins will perform the service for me. Since Peelawat will only be one year old on February 4th – I do hope that he is able to when my time comes!

After the chanting and merit making ritual inside of the home was completed a man drove a pickup truck up to 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 effects such as cushions, and bags of clothing were added to this truck.

Several village men and male relatives went into the home. They rolled the refrigerated container out of the home and respectfully placed it in the back of the pickup truck. As the body exited the home, a string of firecrackers were lit off to scare away any local Pii (spirits or ghosts). By now many people dressed mostly in dark clothing started to form up around the truck transporting the body. The 19 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. 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 Nongdahn Village with the silence of procession occasionally interrupted by firing noisy whirling fireworks high into the sky. To get to the Wat the procession had to cross and walk along the main farm road. A couple of times, tandem trucks heavily laden with harvested sugar cane were forced to share the road with the procession. As the procession entered into the Wat grounds a large firecracker was set off hopefully to scare the spirits as much as it scared me. 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 (colorful woven reed mats) placed on the tiled floor. Other people sat outside in the rows of plastic chairs that had been set up outside of the bot. 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 woman’s personal possessions and placed them alongside of the crematorium on the ground to be burned separately.

People then went into the simple temple where offerings were made to the nineteen 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 soft drinks and water. The offering ceremony appeared to be like so many of the other ceremonies that I have attended for all kinds of different reasons.

In observing the ritual, I did not see anyone that I would consider to be a "professional" in these matters. There were no 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 funerals. 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 known about the village, family 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. I had learned from the previous funeral rite that no part of the ritual is off limits to closer observation or photography. This time I was determined to take photographs that I was too shy to photograph the last time. It was extremely interesting to observe and I made a great effort to be respectful while seeing and learning as much as I could.

As part of this funeral’s ritual, a tray of food along with two small glasses of whiskey were brought from the bot and placed upon the top of the closed coffin. The three cloth sacks that had been atop the coffin were removed and brought into the bot to be offered to the Abbot of the Wat. Two men read the names, ages, and home villages of her brothers and sisters as well as her children. As their name was read, they stood up, walked over to the man, received a plain white envelope, and offered it to one of the Monks. Duang told me that each envelope contained 2,000 baht for a total of 38,000 baht (over one thousand US dollars). In making the offering, the family members earned merit for the deceased as well as for themselves – thanks to the generosity of the deceased’s immediate family. After the offering ritual in the bot was completed, some men removed the lid on the coffin for the next part of the ritual.

A nephew had prepared several green coconuts using a long knife to cut off the tops to open up a small hole to exact the clear liquid inside. The other end of the coconut had been cut square so that the coconuts be stable when placed on the concrete slab next to the coffin. Another man had several pieces of bamboo about 18 inches long with a strap of thin bamboo strung through the slanted top. One of the daughters filled the bamboo with water that had a very fragrant liquid soap or oil added to it. The fragrant oil or liquid soap is purchased at Buddhist Religious Shops and used in rituals.

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. Duang has told me that everyone in Isaan has their face "washed" with coconut liquid because everyone likes green coconut water and it cleans the face. The purpose of the offerings is to nourish the spirit and cleanse as well as cool the spirit for its upcoming journey.

The remainder of the people including many children of all ages had now lined up at the foot of the stairs. Here in Isaan, death is not hidden and kept secret. The children learn of death at the earliest of ages. At the base of the stairway there were two large bowls with little packets made out of bamboo strips and paper. Each person took one of these things and placed it upon the body when they paid their last respects. As they descended the stairs of the crematorium, one of the deceased woman's daughters gave the people a a hard candy similar to a lollipop without the stick. After everyone had paid their last respects, the bamboo strip and paper offerings were removed and placed upon the personal possessions pile to be burned. The coffin was drained of the coconut water and scented water. The saht was removed and placed on the pile to be burned separately along with the floral arrangement along with the personal possessions. The Abbot ascended the crematorium stairs said some good words along with the woman’s youngest daughter. They then threw small packets of coins wrapped in colored foil and hard candies to the people below.

The coffin was then placed inside of the furnace and the furnace door was closed. The furnace was ignited and as the first wisps of smoke came out of the crematorium chimney, we left. The entire service had lasted three houers.

This ritual was simple, touching, and very dignified. I was once again 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.

We returned home tired from our eight hours of Student Games and funeral. I now have 629 photos from the day to edit and file as well as at least one more blog after this one to write


  1. Very well written. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you for your kind words. I have attended several more funerals and written blogs about them since this one in 2009. Death is a common life milestone in my wife's family -23 Aunts and Uncles along with 96 cousins. All the funerals have been dignified and caring.



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