Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Isaan Death Merit Making Celebration

Friday, as I was commencing my long journey back to my home in Isaan, a relative of my brother-in-law's girl friend died. As is customary for Lao Loum Buddhists, his remains were kept in his home and watched over by his family. On the third day after his death, Monday, his remains were cremated at the local Wat in a ritual that I have witnessed three times since I moved here to Northeast Thailand.

Typically a year or two after a person's death, a merit making ritual is conducted to assist the departed spirit on its journey and subsequent return to our world. For lack of knowledge for a name for this ritual I will call it a "Death Merit Making Celebration". I am tempted to call it a "Party" for that is what it superficially appears to be however to refer to this important ritual as a party would be irreverent and demean the significance of the event to the Lao Loum culture.

The celebration is typically conducted about a year or two after the person's death do to financial considerations. This man's family currently had enough money to pay for the ritual so rather than waiting any length of time, they decided to have the celebration the day after the man was cremated. The merit making event is a big commitment of a family's resources. Food and drink are provided to the people who attend the celebration. just as at celebrations of weddings, Monk ordinations, house warming, and funerals the food is not typical everyday Lao Loum fare. Raw chopped up beef is mixed with chilies to be eaten along with sticky rice. Various other parts of cattle, such as stomach, liver, veins, and skin are used in various soups and dips for the sticky rice that is the staple of the Lao Loum diet. Pig meat and organs are also utilized in similar pork based dishes.

Upon our arrival at the deceased man's home somewhere out in the middle of the rice paddies outside of Udonthani, we were invited to sit down at one of the tables placed underneath a large rented canopy and promptly served many of the dishes especially prepared for the night's celebration. Two bottles of Leo beer, and a 1.5 liter bottle of Coke along with glasses filled with ice were placed in front of us to quench our thirst. The rainy season has returned in full swing to Isaan during my one month absence. Although it rains just about everyday the temperature has not moderated very much. rather than a high temperature of 95 to 105F, the temperature gets up to only 90 to 95F each day. The humidity has increased greatly from what it was during the dry season. The Lao Loum custom of drinking beer on the rocks is very much appreciated during this season. As well as adjusting to the 11 hour time differential between Isaan and Connecticut I was struggling to adjust the Isaan heat and humidity of 90F and 80% as opposed to 70F and 60% back in the USA.

Duang's brother's girlfriend picked us up at our home and drove out to the site of the celebration. This was very fortunate for us because the place for the celebration was very rural as well as remote. The roads were very narrow and many were covered with mud from an earlier four days of rain. An added benefit of her driving was that it allowed me to have some beer during the celebration. We arrived at the deceased's home at 6:30 P.M. and socialized with the local people until around 8:00 P.M. when nine Monks arrived.

The Monks went straight into the home and sat down in a row facing many of the deceased man's relatives. As is the case here in Isaan, the man's sons, and grandsons had shaved their heads and eyebrows for the three days that his body lay in state. They wore Monk's clothing and behaved as Monks from his death until his cremation. This act earned merit for the deceased as well as for them. A Brahman, using a loud public address system, led the family in chanting ancient verses which were replied to by one of the Monks using another microphone over the same PA system with the other Monks joining in without amplification. The chanting continued for about 45 minutes. Outside of the home, many of the people including young children put their hands into the typical Christian position for praying. In reality, the Buddhist ritual predates Christian ritual by hundreds of years. The chanting was not in the Thai or even Lao languages but in Pali, the language originally used by the Monks who brought Buddhism to Thailand. There was no outward signs of grieving.

At the entrance to the home there was a small doll house sized structure made out banana stalks that was a shrine to be offered in the man's name at the local Wat. In front of the shrine was an 11x14 framed picture of the deceased man. The picture was from his Thai National ID card since most Lao Loum farmers can not afford to have professional portraits done. Offerings for the man's spirit were placed in and around the home made bana stalk shrine (spirit house). The offerings ranged from small handkerchiefs, flags, food, whiskey, beer, and money. The money was offerings from people like us who were attending the celebration. The cash would later be offered to the Monks in the man's name as well as donors. The shrine and portrait were draped in strands of small blinking blue and yellow lights - very similar to current Christmas tree lights. Cotton strings also ran from the family home and detached raised platform on the property to the shrine. The cotton strings have more to do with Animist beliefs and rituals than Buddhist theology. The strings were the same type that are used in Baii Sii rituals to bind the 32 spirits inside a persons body to ensure health as well as fortune. The Monks also hold on to similar string when participating in merit making rituals. In my opinion the string serves as a type of bond between our world and the spirit world as well as facilitates effective communication to the world beyond ours.

Duang and I wandered across the narrow village street to the rice paddy where the stage had been erected for the show. We went backstage to visit with her brother and for me to photograph the entertainers prepare for their show. My brother-in-law had a knew Go-Go dancer in his show. She seemed rather shy and was rather difficult to photograph. It was oppressively hot and humid. Soon we were drenching wet. Even the dancers were showing signs of moisture through their outfits when all they had been doing was putting on their make-up. It seemed that my eyeglasses were constantly fogged up and my eyes were soon irritated from the salt of my perspiration running into them. Despite these discomforts we enjoyed ourselves. Soon some of the women in the deceased man's family came by carrying pots and dishes of food for the entertainers. The men ate and drank first without seemingly any regard for the female singer and dancers. Later when the women were going to eat, fresh pots as well as dishes of food were brought out for them. There is never a shortage of either food or drink at these celebrations.

The show got started at 9:00 P.M. and would run until 3:00 A.M. There never seems to be a problem with having these shows with the neighbors complaining about the noise. Perhaps it is because the neighbors seem to always participate in the celebrations. Perhaps it is because they know that at some time they will be responsible for a similar show. Perhaps it is because these events are integral part of being a member of an extended family or part of the village. I also suspect that a great deal can be attributed to the Lao Loum culture of enjoying one self and having a good time especially if it is free.

Prior to the start of the music, a spokesperson for the family welcomed the people and gave a short speech. He was followed by the Village Headman who gave a little longer speech. He was followed by two Police officials who each gave the longest speeches. After the speeches, three good sized fireworks were launched into the sky. The blasts were full sized fireworks that exploded high into the sky with loud bursts of colors. This three blasts of fireworks or firecrackers is typical of Lao Loum celebrations and are apparently to notify the spirits of the upcoming event as well as to scare off any bad ghosts in the area. In last night's celebration, the fireworks also were to assist the deceased man's spirit to ascend into the spirit world. After the three large mortar fireworks, with the number three significant in that they represented Buddha, the teachings of Buddha, and the Buddhist religious community, several other fireworks were released one at a time into the heavy night air. These fireworks were sort of like rocket propelled Frisbees. A man lit them and carefully sent them into the air like throwing a Frisbee. The rockets ignited and rapidly propelled the device spinning wildly in a shower of sparks high into the sky with a loud whirling sound. They are very impressive and are used more often conventional mortar type fireworks for the various Lao Loum celebrations. I was a little apprehensive about these whirling dervishes after recently witnessing one malfunction and strike a spectator. Fortunately last night the launching of the spinners was without incident.

After the fireworks, the show got started. As always the music and dancing was great. The new dancer who was shy backstage, was quite the performer on stage. Once again here in Thailand, things are not always what they appear to be. She hit every driving beat of the music with a great pelvic thrust. It was amazing how she could always accentuate every decisive beat of any song with an energetic suggestive body movement. On stage she was not shy at all. She also appeared to be thoroughly enjoying herself smiling throughout her routines no matter how long the set was. Quickly she became a crowd favorite.

The villagers were all very good dancers. There were a couple of young boys about 8 and 10 years old who were especially proficient at the Lao country current style dancing - a very animated stomp. When the band played the Lao Loum party song "Tee Hoy" my brother-in-law called me out to do my rendition of the Lao Loum country dance. I gave it my best effort and returned to my seat dripping in sweat, heart racing, and exhausted. There was even an old woman who could and was dancing up a storm. Later in the night the Kathoeys showed up as they always do at these shows. One of the lady boys put on a tremendous display of dancing - with just as many pelvic thrusts as the new dancer on stage but with the addition of wild and high jumps into the air while thrusting. True to her wish, the Kathoey attracted a great deal of attention including the recognition as well as acknowledgement of her dancing prowess by the lead female performer on stage. It was all good natured and everyone enjoyed themselves.

I don't know if it was the heat and humidity. I don't know if it was jet lag. I don't know if it was big dance. It might have even been the beer that I had been drinking. I ended up laying down with my head in my wife's lap and actually went to sleep no more than 30 feet from one of the bank of speakers for the show. My brother-in-law even made a joke about me sleeping.

I awoke in time to witness the special ceremony as part of the show. For the death merit making celebration show, the family goes up on stage and sits in front of the band. One family member holds the large framed photograph of the deceased. Another family member holds a large tray of offerings for the deceased. The try contains some food, a shot or two of whiskey, some plant leaves, some small flowers, some burning incense sticks, as well as some candles. Behind the family, a member of the band plays the khene, a long reed instrument that creates a sound similar to an accordion. The khene is the symbol of Lao culture and its music defines what it is to be Lao. It is akin to the importance and significance of the bagpipes to Scots. As the musician plays the khene, the female lead performer sings a traditional lament in Lao using the traditional Lao style of singing. It makes for a very moving and memorable experience of the Lao Loum culture.

After the lament, we returned home - a trip made shorter for me by falling asleep once again.

It is great to be home again.


  1. Thank you for that detailed description Allen.

    I attended one of these ceremonies, or a least parts of it aot ten years ago, in a village just outside Nakhon Phanom. It was the first ever ceremony I attended and photographed in this part of the world. I as ignorant, but fascinated. A few weeks later I had printed the results and brought them back to the family, who were delighted. It was probably this occasion that prompted my return to serious photography and the start of what would evolve into my documentary of Luang Namtha province in 2002.
    If I can find back some of my records of that occasion, I'll post some on Facebook.

  2. It never ceases to amaze me how open and friendly the people here are in sharing their culture as well as their personal life with us. Itis a privilege that I am most thankful for.

    I and, as I know, many others are grateful that you returned to serious photography.