Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Another Isaan Funeral - "Same Same But Different"

Yesterday, Monday 22 February, my plans and intentions for the day were interrupted. It was my intention as well as plan to complete a blog about our experiences on our last day in Laos during our recent trip to Luang Namtha. However, we needed to take care of family business and obligations. One of Duang's uncles, 82 years old from Tahsang Village, had died three days previously and his cremation ritual was to be held at 13:00 yesterday afternoon in Tahsang Village. Duang and I were going to go out to the village after I had my lunch at 11:00 A.M., but we got a call early in the morning from her cousin asking why we had not arrived so we ended up leaving our home earlier in the morning. Duang had 23 Aunts and Uncles but they are all getting to the end stage of this life. This was the second funeral for a close relative that we have attended in the very recent past. Another Uncle has been in the hospital three times in the past week and a half so we suspect that there will be another funeral soon.

I have written about Isaan funerals twice before so for this blog I will focus on the generalities and unique aspects of this particular ritual.

Upon arriving at the Uncle's home, we were greeted and invited to sit down. Food from the the outside kitchen set up in the side yard was brought to us as well as all other guests upon their arrival. The loudspeaker system announced the offerings that each guest had made to be given to the Monks as part of the merit making ritual associated with the funeral. Next door and up against a low cinder block wall, in a neighbor's weed strewn yard, a group of 10 people were busy gambling. The gambling was similar to the game that we had observed in Laos late last month. It was a combination of roulette and dice. However in this game the dice were not released to tumble down in an open wood box. For this game the dice were placed on a plate and covered with a small woven reed bowl. After all the bets were placed on the plastic pictorial betting sheet, an elderly woman shook the plate-bowl assembly once, placed it carefully back on the ground, and slowly removed the bowl to reveal the results. The action was hot and heavy. One woman had won 3,000 baht the previous day - almost $100. Although gambling is illegal in Thailand, according to Duang everyone plays cards (gambles) in Isaan at a funeral and the police do not complain. I asked her why they gamble at funerals and she told me because there isn't live music. At the anniversary of a person's death, there is typically a stage show and at those occasions there is no gambling. If people gamble and it is not a funeral, the police will arrest or "fine" the people. Just as many aspects of religion, this can not be fully explained, or fully understood. It is what it is and you are left to accept or not accept it.

This was the first Isaan funeral for a man that I have attended. Funerals for men and women are structurally the same however most differences are related to the social and economic status of the deceased. People in Isaan buy life insurance. When a person dies, the insurance company immediately pays the proceeds of the policy - typically around 100,000 baht ($3,000 USD). The money is used to help pay for the funeral. Besides paying for the rental of the refrigerated coffin used for the three days that the body lays in state, the money pays for food, drink (alcohol and soft drinks), cash offerings to the Monks, and other offerings to the Monks such as robes, blankets, candles, and the ubiquitous plastic pails filled with personal hygiene and personal care items for Monks. Some money is also placed in envelopes for selected guests to offer to the Monks in the name of the deceased thereby making merit for themselves as well as the deceased.

Duang's Uncle had quite a bit of land so there much more offerings given than I had witnessed at the previous two funerals. During this ritual, approximately 30 orange hand towels were to be offered to the Monks as part of the ritual. The towels along with other offerings were placed on a table at the foot of one of the stairways leading up to the furnace entrance of the crematorium where the closed coffin was placed. The ritual was overseen by the man's cousin who is an Abbott of a local Wat. For protection from the strong sun, the Abbott carried a large silver umbrella which had "Some people know the difference". "Some people know the difference"? A Buddhist mantra? A Buddhist belief? Noooo ... it was a marketing statement that was related to the logo on the other side of the umbrella - "Jack Daniels No. 7". Just as Thai food is a melange of taste, textures, and sensations, life in Isaan is also a melange of opposites juxtaposed to create a vibrant mosaic. In this case a pious Monk carrying an umbrella advertising an international brand of liquor while participating in an ancient merit making ritual.

As a person's name was announced, they went up to the table, where a granddaughter of the deceased man presented them with a towel placed on top of a pressed metal ceremonial bowl. The recipient performed a wai (Thai sign of respect), accepted the offering, and walked up stairs to the coffin. They then placed the towel along with the previous towels on top of the coffin. A couple of the deceased man's sons ensured that the towels were laid out in an orderly fashion. There were also three dignitaries at the merit making ritual. The head man of Khumphawapi Province is related to the deceased so he attended along with the No 2 man of the province. A third dignitary was the headman from another village. After the close family members had presented the towel offerings, the dignitaries were given other offerings rather than towels to present. I know that one offering was a large box containing two intricately carved yellow candles to burn in the Wat.

Some of the guests, both male and female, wore what appeared to be military uniforms. They were not members of the armed forces but were teachers. Apparently on Mondays and Fridays, teachers wear their uniforms. All this time I had thought that Thailand had a huge military! It also turns out that many civil servants also have formal military style uniforms that they wear at certain occasions. However this was not the end of me learning something new for the day.

After the offerings had been placed atop the coffin, they were removed by some of the approximately 32 Monks that participated in the ritual and brought to the area where the formal offerings to the Monks as well as chanting was being performed.

The formal merit making ritual lasted two hours. I wandered around taking photographs of whatever I pleased. This may sound strange to other cultures - a stranger, let alone a foreigner, talking photographs of a solemn family event, but I have grown accustomed to the Buddhist and Isaan attitude towards death. Death here is a life milestone not all that much different than birth, marriage, ordination, or moving into a new home. Yes, it is restrained, and dignified. But it is not overly somber and definitely not emotional. I was not the only photographer at this ritual. The deceased man's grandson spent most of his time documenting the event using his camera flash much more than I was comfortable using mine.

After the offerings had been removed, the other guests went to the table at the foot of the stairway to pick up woven bamboo and paper objects, talisman, to place on the closed coffin. After the last guest had placed their talisman on the coffin, several were removed and distributed throughout the furnace on its floor. The remainder of the talismans were placed on the pile of the Uncle's personal possessions on the bare ground outside of the crematorium to be burned in an open fire as his body was cremated.

The thin top of the coffin was removed so that family members could say their final good bye to their loved one. This was also the time for the family to pour coconut water and scented water on the corpse. The corpse had its hands in a wai position but unlike the previous funerals there were no candles, joss sticks or other offerings in his hand. After awhile, a young man came up to coffin with one of the heavy knives used for cutting sugar cane and for chopping meat into paste. With extreme care and reverence, he used the knife to pry the hands apart. He and another man then pushed the corpse's hands to the side of the body. I had not seen this before during Isaan funerals. The justification for this unexpected action became quickly apparent. Family members as they poured the coconut water or just as they finished pouring the water, grasped a hand in a final lingering farewell gesture. Other members gently and affectionately touched the decease's forehead or cheeks as they poured their portion of either coconut or scented water on to the corpse typically on the face.

Whereas death seems to be an embarrassment, a fate to be largely ignored and definitely an event to dread in western cultures with funeral guests often uncomfortable as to how to behave or how to react with the decease's family, here in Isaan it is a community gathering, one of many opportunities to make merit. It is an milestone that people understand and accept without reservation. They know that it will come. They plan on it coming. All members of the community young and old participate in the very public funeral rituals.

This funeral was very similar to the other funerals that I have attended but there were some unique aspects to it which merited the common Thai expression of "Same Same but different"

The Lao Loum family and community structure in Isaan basically eliminates the concerns for the survivors. The youngest daughter is always responsible for supporting her parents so widows or widowers have a certain measure of security. Children are loved and cared for not only by the members of the large families but also by the other members of the village. Older siblings understand their responsibilities, duties, and obligations to their younger brothers and sister.

I learned my last new item of the day as we were leaving the Wat, I noticed a woman with a heavily bandaged thumb. Duang spoke to her and determine that part of her thumb had been amputated - amputated when one of the cattle that she was tending decided to take a run while the rope leash was wrapped around the woman's thumb.

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