Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Two Funerals and An Excorcism

One Body Being Cremated In Furnace, Another Body Being Cremated On Open Pyre
Now that the Christmas and New Years holidays are over, it is time to try to get caught up on my blog entries.  I also have a backlog of photographs to review, edit, and post.  There is no doubt in my mind that January will be another busy month.

December 22nd was a very busy day for us.  We were going to the village next to Tahsang Village, Nongdaeng Village, to attend the funeral for one of Duang's cousins.  He was 47 years old and was one of the five people in the village who had died during the past week.  The village has about 200 people.  Needless to say the villagers were rather perplexed.  Duang's Aunt told her that Phii (spirits) were responsible for the deaths.  There are many Phii in this world, or rather in the Animist world that is still a large part of the Isaan experience, some of the Phii are good and some Phii are bad.  Apparently the worst Phii are "Phii Ling" (Monkey Spirits).  Monkey Spirits make people sick and cause them to die.  The Monkey Spirits have a desire for blood and will enter the body through the throat to get at the blood.

Villagers Starting to Arrive at Wat for Exorcism
The people of Nondaeng Village were not going to put up with the infestation of Monkey Spirits that were causing such havoc in their village.  On the Wednesday morning, 22 December, they planned to hunt down and capture the Phii Ling for a second day so that they could properly destroy them.  In addition to attending the funeral, we were invited to attend the ritual, which I will refer to as an exorcism, to witness as well as document the event.  Family members around the villages are very familiar with me and my desire to photograph and learn about their life.  Whenever they are having an event or going to be doing some type of different work, they call Duang to let us know.

Besides being polite in inviting us to the exorcism I suspect that there was also an ulterior motive in getting me to attend the ritual.  The night before the ritual, Duang told me to be sure to wear my Buddhist amulets as protection during our visit to Nongdaeng Village.  She then assured me that her small amulet that she wears everyday was powerful enough to protect her.  As we were preparing to leave our home the morning, she double checked to ensure that I was packing - protection.  Although Phii are afraid of falang (foreigners) Duang wanted to be double sure that I would not have any problems.

A Relative Makes An Offering In Front of the Coffin Inside the Home
Upon arrival at Nongdaeng Village we went to Duang's cousin's home.  Like all the other funerals that we have attended here in Isaan, the body remains in the home for the three day ritual prior to cremation.  The body is placed inside of a disposal coffin which is stored inside of a rented portable refrigerated coffin.  Just as in Western Christian funerals, flowers and a photograph of the deceased person are displayed around the coffin.  In front of the coffin candles and Joss sticks are burned as offerings.

As guests arrive for the final funeral ritual, they present offerings at the entrance to the home.  Money is given to the family and is used to support the family as well as to be used as offerings to the Monks.  The name of each donor and the amount of money that they donate is recorded in a paper tablet.  The information is shared with the Monk after the body has been cremated in order that the donors receive their proper merit.   The family determines how much of the money is offered to the Monks.  Typically it is around 50%.  Since the amount of money offered to the Monks or used to buy offerings such as robes, candles, towels, and Monk Gift Packs determines how much merit is earned for the deceased as well as for the family there are pressures to not be stingy in the amount allocated for the Monks.  We knew that the family was poor we also donated two cases of soft drinks and two cases of drinking water for the funeral ritual.  Some people are too poor to make offerings of money so they make an offering of rice from their larder.  The individual offerings of rice, some as little as 1 kilogram, are combined into a large 55 kilogram sack or sacks.  Just as with monetary donations, the family will keep some of the rice and offer the remainder to the Monks at the local Wat.  The Monks sell the rice for below market price to poor people or give the rice to the poor people who are unable to pay for rice.  There is no state welfare here in Isaan.  The needs of individuals are met by either the family, neighbors, or the Sanga (Buddhist Clergy).

Lan Sai (Grandson) Peelawat, 22 months old and Yai (Grandmother) Duang During Funeral Ritual - She is Praying, He is Eating Dragon Fruit
The family feeds guests and supplies them with soft drinks as well as drinking water.  The female members of the family and neighbors set up an outdoor kitchen to prepare the funeral food.  Young women and older girls typically serve the guests upon their arrival.  At the appointed time, the Monks who have been seated inside the home up against an exterior wall will participate in a formal ritual.  The ritual is actually initiated and lead by a Shaman.  The Shaman will commence the chanting and supervise the connection of the coffin to the assembled Monks with a cotton string similar to butcher's string.  The connection of the deceased through the string to the Monks is an important aspect of the funeral ritual as well as other rituals such as weddings, and Baii Sii ceremonies.  This is an Animist concept that has been absorbed into the Buddhist rituals.

Yong Boys Have Their Head and Eyebrows Shaved to Participate in Relative's Funeral
Another unique aspect of the Lao Loum funeral rituals here in Isaan is the incorporation of children of all ages.  Sons, Nephews, and Grandsons will have their head and eyebrows shaved prior to wearing Monks robes for the funeral ritual.  For the three day period of the funeral ritual the boys will be Monks and participate in the rituals.  The youngest boys that I have seen as Monks during a funeral were around 7 or 8 years old.  Younger children, both boys and girls are brought to funerals with no efforts made to shield them from any aspects of the ritual including the final viewing of the body before cremation.  Just as in the case of births, weddings, and ordinations, children are witness to another milestone in Lao Loum life - death.  Here in Isaan death is a life event that is not hidden out of sight.  There are no morticians or mortuaries.  All preparations and ritual are conducted by family, friends, and neighbors with the assistance of the Buddhist clergy.  The rituals are conducted with a great deal of dignity and respect.

Duang sent me off to the Wat while the ritual was being performed at the home.  I went to the Wat and found about 1/2 of the villagers arriving with bamboo switches in their hand.  They gathered around the Wat grounds until a young Monk lead them out into the village.  The scene sort of reminded me of the original film version of Frankenstein when the villagers set off to find him carrying torches and pitchforks.  Since it was a bright and sunny December Isaan morning there was no need for torches.  The villagers were carrying their long bamboo sticks to scare up the Phii Ling.

The people were very pleased to have me join them perhaps as additional protection since Phii do not like foreigners.  Many times over here in Isaan as well as other areas of Southeast Asia I find myself in situations or experience things that I do not fully understand or quite often do not necessarily believe in myself.  However I do not view it as my responsibility to judge or to validate what I either witness or what I am told.  I believe that my obligation and responsibility is to report accurately what I have seen, experienced, and have been told.  I leave it to the individual reader to form their own opinions and to make their own judgements if they are so inclined.  Having reiterated this position that I have set out in previous blogs, I will now write about the exorcism.

Nongdaeng Village Monk
The villagers gathered around the Monk and set about the narrow paved village streets in search of the Monkey Spirits.  The Monk carried a very old wood carved sword that he often used to point out things and show the direction for the crowd to go.  The crowd was in a peculiar mood that I would best describe as bordering on a somewhat nervously cautious enthusiasm.  The ritual was definitely a social bonding event.  I could see that people were happy to be out and about with their family and neighbors.  Although the villagers were in good spirits they also seemed a little nervous which made their perceived enthusiasm to more bravado than confidence.  It appeared to me that the people really believed that their problem and misfortune was caused by evil spirits and that in dealing with the supernatural they were tempting fate.

An Evil Spirit Is Trapped Against the Floor
One of the young men attending to the Monk carried a large woven bamboo basket.  The basket was filled with a coarse red gravel type material along with a good sized wood phallus.  Some of the villagers as well as the Monk would grab handfuls of the gravel material and throw it up on the roofs of houses and rice storage structures.  The gravel would strike the corrugated metal roofs with a sharp clap followed by the tinkling sound of several small stones rolling down and eventually off of the hot tin roof.  I did not see any cats on the hot tin roofs but there were apparently plenty of monkey spirits on the hot tin roofs.  I did not see any of the evil spirits but the villagers did.  When they did spot an evil spirit, they would give out a whoop and a holler.  Two young men would rush to the location.  Each rather large young man carried a short and stout bamboo stick that was connected to the other stick with several strands of thick cotton string.  Working together, the two young men would pin the evil spirit to the ground or floor awaiting other members of the team to take the next step.  As quickly as a spirit was pinned down, other men arrived with a piece of square cotton cloth that had writing on it, an elastic band, and half of an empty plastic soft drink bottle.  The cotton cloth which Duang told me said something like "Monkey Spirits Go Away" was used to move the pinned spirit into the plastic container and then in conjunction with the elastic band contain the spirit in the bottle.  The bottle was then placed in a very large plastic bag containing all the other captured evil spirits.

While the men were dealing with the captured spirit, the remainder of the villagers were busy searching for other spirits and rousting them out of their hiding places.  The people used the bamboo sticks to beat on trees, roofs of houses, walls and roofs of rice storage sheds, tree trunks, and any other possible hiding places.  Pieces of wood, plastic, or metal were uplifted to seek evil spirits.  In about 30 minutes many of the bamboo sticks had flayed ends from the exertions of the villagers to roust the spirits.

A Captured Evil Spirit is Placed Into a Container
Lead by the Monk, we entered several homes.  The downstairs and the upstairs were checked for Monkey Spirits.  Cupboards and clothes cabinets were opened and struck with bamboo sticks to force the spirits into the open.  Blankets and bedding were overturned in the search for hiding spirits. Escaping spirits were quickly captured and contained all under the watchful eye of the Monk.  I accompanied the capture crew but did not see any of the spirits.  After awhile Duang joined us in the quest for the Monkey Spirits.  She was impressed with how many evil spirits had been captured.  She said that she thought that there could be one thousand Phii in the village.

Another Phii Has Been Captured
Since I had not seen any Phii even though I had close up photographs of their capture, I asked Duang if she had seen any Phii.  She replied that she had seen some of them.  I asked her once again a little while later and she confirmed that she had seen them.  I had reached the limit of my comfort level in regards to the subject.  I had confirmed that she had seen them and to me any further questioning would not be polite.  I guess seeing the Monkey Spirits is akin to seeing the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich or in the bark of a tree - you have to be a true believer to begin with and have the faith.  Perhaps my inability to see the Phii lay in their fear of falang.  Perhaps out of fear of me they would not reveal themselves to me or my camera.  Although this mystery will most likely never be solved or answered it does not qualify as a mystery of the universe.  It is just one of those mysteries of Isaan that I can only report and never solve.  It is an aspect of living here in Isaan that makes life so interesting.

Besides the attendant with the basket of gravel, there was another man with a basket of eggs.  Occasionally the Monk or one of the villagers would take an egg and smash it on the road or against a building.  According to Duang, Phii do not like eggs which is something that I can relate to.  However the Phii are also attracted to the smashed eggs.  Apparently the smashed eggs are like blood to the Phii.  The Monk and villagers used the eggs to lure some of the Phii out of hiding so that they could be captured.

The villagers, Duang and I spent almost two hours scouring the village for evil spirits; literally and figuratively leaving no stone unturned in our quest to rid the village of the Monkey Spirits.  I got into the "spirit" of the occasion by removing the cover of a well to help look for the spirits.  I figured that if I were an evil spirit I would hide in a well.  Perhaps I had seen too many movies where people hid in wells from the Japanese, Nazis, and Apaches.  Perhaps I would not make a very good evil spirit; we did not find any Monkey Spirits in the well that day although the villagers appreciated my idea and effort to assist them.

The crowd ended up at a home at the edge of the village (isn't it ironic that the evil house is always at the edge of town and never in the center of town?).  The hunters went into the home but for some inexplicable reason I did not accompany them inside.  I should have.  From outside we could hear a big fight break out from inside the home.  There was the ubiquitous crack of bamboo striking the structural columns and beams of the home followed by the frantic thuds of heavy barefoot steps of the hunters either chasing or fleeing something.  There was the sounds of a big struggle accompanied by beastly sounds.  There were unearthly growls and grunts.  After a while the spirit hunters exited the house in triumph.  They had captured the big Monkey Spirit, Monkey Spirit Number One - the leader of the Evil Spirits.  With the capture of the Monkey Spirit Leader, our work that day was done.  The villagers invited me back to the village for the next morning when the last bit of work would be completed - taking all the plastic bottles containing the Monkey Spirits to the Wat and incinerating them in a big fire.

I hoped to attend the last part of the ritual but our priority for the next morning was to visit the Amphur (County) Office in Kumphawapi to obtain some final documents needed for Duang's Immigration Interview at the American Consulate in Bangkok on 27 December.  As it turned out we missed the burning of the spirits.  We got a call from a relative in the village asking where we were and Duang explained.  By the time we got out to the village, the deed was done.

The village exorcism was a unique experience for me and needless to say it was the first time that I had witnessed such a ritual.  I found the ritual and experience to be extremely interesting.  Although I try not to make judgements in such matters I do feel free to make observations.

Nongdaeng Village was a community under going some stress with the deaths of five inhabitants within a week.  Village life in Isaan is not a detached or impersonal activity.  Most of your neighbors in an Isaan village are your relatives.  If your neighbors are not your relatives, they are people that you see and speak with everyday.  There is a very strong sense of community in an Isaan village with neighbors working side by side in the local fields, worshipping at the same local Wat, celebrating life events together, raising the village children, and often sharing food together.  Much of a villager's time is spent outdoors where they interact with each other.  A death in the village affects everyone and is not a detached event removed from your daily life.  Five deaths in a village is disturbing.

The villagers needed answers as to why there had been five deaths in such a short period of time.  Just like people in other societies they had a desire to rationalize what they could not understand.  The Lao Loum people of Isaan, especially in the outlying villages, are not highly educated especially the people 35 years and older.  Whereas we in America would rely upon science to explain the deaths, science is not an option for the subsistence farmers of Isaan.  Their faith for answers to the unexplained is in their religion.  Their religion, although extensively Buddhist, retains a great number of Animist beliefs and rituals.  It is these beliefs and rituals that give the community a sense of comfort, a sense of control and power in its daily affairs.

During the ritual of ridding the village of Monkey Spirits, I saw a community strengthening its bonds.  People were working together and uniting for the common good of all.  The villagers were confronting a challenge to their their normal way of life and taking united action to return their life to a perceived normality.  In the process of ridding the village of the evil spirits, they were strengthening the social and religious bonds that hold their community together.  Although the rationale and methods may be subject to debate, in my opinion there is not debating the merits of results from their chosen ritual.  The community was strengthened and comforted through the ritual.

A Novice Monk Ignites the Diesel Soaked Body and Charcoal With Joss Sticks
Duang and I walked over to the Wat where the final part of the funeral ritual for her cousin were being conducted.  As Duang sat underneath the large shade trees of the Wat with the other women, I wandered about taking photographs.  During Buddhist rituals here in Isaan, women and men sit in separate areas.  Children will sit with the women.  Since I don't understand much of what is going on I sit with Duang in the women's section so that she can explain to me.  Because I am a foreigner and the Lao Loum people are polite, it is tolerated if not accepted.

Taking photographs during a funeral is a widely practiced activity here in Isaan.  At first I was a little taken back by people motioning me to come forward to take better and much closer shots of all aspects of the funeral ritual.  I have gotten accustomed to the practice now and eagerly but respectfully join the others taking photographs.

While taking photographs of the ritual for Duang's cousin at the opening to the furnace, I started speaking to a man who was her cousin's best friend.  He was supervising the activities prior to placing the coffin into the furnace.  He told me that there would be a second funeral after Duang's cousin and invited me to attend.  After the conclusion of Duang's cousin's funeral he brought Duang and I over to the family associated with the next funeral.  In no time at all we felt like part of the community if not family.  We were offered seats, food, and drink.  People asked about where I was from and if funerals in America were like theirs.  I prophetically told them that funerals were nothing like this in America.  I told them that a stranger would never dare to photograph a funeral in America.  What I did not realize as I spoke was that this funeral was going to be unlike any public funeral in America!

Procession From the Home to the Village Wat.  Man sprinkles Puffed Rice ahead of the Procession
The second man to be cremated that day was an older man.  He was a blind man who played music at the market in Kumphawapi to support his family.  He had five children and three wives.  Polygamy is against the law in Thailand but some old habits are hard to break or get rid of.  You can only be legally, as in registered with the government, married to one person at a time.  However many men in Isaan have more than one wife with non-registered wives referred to as "Mia Noi" (Little Wife).

Money Offerings
As smoke rose from the Wat's Crematorium for Duang's cousin, the coffin for the blind musician was brought to the Wat.  As is typical for these funerals, and I have written previously in other blogs about Isaan funerals, the coffin was placed on a pickup truck and lead by a procession of Monks from the deceased person's home to the local Wat.  The Monks, some of them sons, grandsons, and nephews held on to a long cotton string that went back to the coffin.  A man with a basket sprinkled puffed rice on the street and pathway ahead of the funeral cortege.

I was a little confused as to how there could be two funeral rituals on the same afternoon at the local Wat.  One body was already in the crematorium and I expected that the furnace would be occupied for at least four hours.  How were they going to take care of the second body?

Years ago there was a television commercial in America about a now defunct investment firm, "Smith and Barney".  The hook line of the ad was "Smith and Barney, We make money the old fashioned way - we earn it".  How were they going to cremate the second body?  A la "Smith and Barney", they were going to cremate the body the old fashioned way - they were going to have a funeral pyre.  I was about to witness a funeral ritual unlike any that I am aware of back in the USA.

Funeral Pyre Commences to Burn
The coffin containing the blind musician's remains was placed beside the crematorium next to a bamboo structure that was built over a large pile of firewood.  The bamboo structure was comprised of four very long freshly cut green bamboo poles that were lashed together to form a sort of pyramid or tepee.  Horizontal bamboo sticks were lashed to the vertical members to give the structure shape as well as stability.  All bamboo members were decorated with colorful Mylar reflective wrappings or colorful Mylar fringe.

In the Name of the Deceased an Offering of a Robe is made to the Abbott
The funeral ritual was fairly typical.  Off to the side underneath a open walled structure, 14 Monks sat facing the Shaman who lead the ritual and the man's immediate family and closest friends.  Out side of the open walled structure and off to one side were rows of chairs with female attendees and children.  Off to the other side of the structure were rows of male attendees.  In front of the male attendees there were two stuffed couches and cocktail tables were honored guests and esteemed officials such as Village Headman, Subdistrict, and District Officials sat.

After the chanting, a commentator who is a local school official dressed in a Boy Scout uniform performed as the MC.  I had seen him at other funerals before performing the same roll.  He spoke about the deceased person, their life, the merits of the deceased, and wished the deceased good luck in his journey and eventual new life.  The MC then started to announce the names of honored guests, esteemed officials, and close family members.  As their name was announced the people walked up to the MC and were given an envelope by a family member.  The envelope contained a money offering.

The person took the envelope and walked over to the coffin.  They gave a Wai (Thai and Lao gesture of respect) to the coffin and appeared to say some words before respectfully placing the envelope on a tray on top of the closed coffin.  The people were participating in a merit making ritual for the deceased as well as for themselves.  They were offering the money to the deceased who through a family member would offer the money to the Monks.  The deceased would earn merit through the act of offering the money and the esteemed officials, honored guests, and close family members would through their participation in the ritual.  The greatest offerings such as Monk's robe were reserved for the highest officials to make.  Once the offerings are removed from the coffin and offered to the Monks, the cover is removed from the coffin.  It is at this time that family and close friends come to the coffin to pour coconut water over the body of the deceased person.  Green coconuts are prepared just prior to the removal of the coffin lid.  The coconut water is poured over the entire body directly from the coconut.  Other people pour scented water on the body from bamboo tubes or as was the case at this funeral from plastic cups.

A Blind Man Pours Scented Water On His Friend
For me the most touching part of this funeral ritual was when the musician's blind friends were lead up to his coffin to participate in the ritual and to make their good byes to their friend.  They were assisted with dignity as well as compassion by the other attendees.  Throughout the ritual I did not see any crying, outbursts of emotion, or hearing any sobbing.  This has been the case at all Buddhist funerals that I have attended here in Isaan.

The Buddhist attitude towards death is best expressed by Wade Davis, a renowned Canadian Anthropologist and contributor to National Geographic documentaries, in his documentary series "Light At the End of the World" ... "The Buddhists spend all their lives getting ready for a moment that we spend most of our lives pretending does not exist, which is the moment of our death"  In Isaan death is a milestone of life which is familiar to and accepted by all from a very early age. The conclusion of this life, which for many has been very difficult, presents the hope as well as opportunity for a better and easier life in the future - another step towards enlightenment.  As I witness the pain and suffering of people in the West as they artificially struggle to delay the inevitable, I have pause to contemplate the best way to live and die.  Here in Isaan, death comes quicker due to a lack of money and facilities.  At what point should we allow ourselves or others to let go and conclude the suffering?

Some of the attendees placed coins on the body in the coffin.  After the body is cremated, the coins will be retrieved and kept in homes or placed in a tube to be worn around the neck as "Good Luck" items or Talisman.  Many Lao Loum people wear a tube attached to a cord around their neck containing a relic such as a tooth from their deceased parent.

After the final goodbyes were completed, the heavy comforter was removed from the coffin and placed to the side of the funeral pyre.  The coffin was drained of the coconut water and scented water.  Some Joss (incense) sticks were scattered atop of the body, the body was doused with diesel fuel, the lid placed over the coffin and the coffin was placed atop of the firewood.  Men then gathered up the large an long pieces of firewood laying on the ground at the side of the pyre.  The long logs were carefully placed vertically all along the sides of the coffin to form a tepee over it.  The logs were doused with diesel fuel and set ablaze.  The comforter, funeral decorations, and the man's possessions were added to the rapidly consuming flames.  Just as the fire was ignited, a man set off fireworks near by.  The fireworks that I refer to as "Whizzers" are a ring that spin off like a Frisbee leaving a cork screw contrail of smoke and a whizzing sound high up into the air prior to exploding in three loud bangs.  These fireworks or similar fireworks are set off to scare away any evil spirits that may be about ready to grab the deceased person's spirit as it rises on its journey.
Firework Is launched At Start of the Cremation
The brother of the deceased man removed his shirt as a concession to the hot flames of the funeral pyre .  He would tend to the fire until everything was totally consumed.  This was but another manifestation of the people caring for each other and taking care of business.  It was time for Duang and I to return to our home in Udonthani.  The unique smell of burning diesel and the corpse, sort of like a heavy and sweet fabric softener scent remained with me the rest of the day - on my clothing, in my hair and in my nose.  The snap, pop, sizzle and crackle of the funeral pyre was a little disconcerting to me but for the villagers it was nothing out of the ordinary.  When I asked about some of the loud sounds a young woman nonchalantly indicated through pantomime that it was the organs of the body reacting to the fire; such is the reality of life as well as death here in Isaan.

It had been quite a busy day - Two funerals and an Exorcism.  For me it had been quite an educational experience as well as an opportunity to experience some unique aspects of Lao Loum culture here in Isaan - a very good day indeed.

In the Light of the Late Afternoon Sun, Villagers Exit the Wat Grounds


  1. Fascinating stuff. I was led to your blog by another - the writer having contributed to a thread on a forum I picked up, searching for the relationship between Buddhism and Brahmanism in Thailand - something I'm puzzled about and after having read History of Bangkok by Alec Waugh - a superb book. Anyhow, I will explore your blog further! Thanks.

  2. Thank you for your interest. If you have any questions please feel free to ask them. I will answer them to the best of my ability and if I don't know I will consult with my wife. Allen

  3. One thing that wasn't mentioned. Were there any further unexplained deaths in the village after the funerals and exorcism ?

  4. I just spoke with my wife who is back in Isaan visiting the family. Since the exorcism a year ago, two villagers have died BUT their deaths were not caused by Phii Ling (Monkey Ghosts). I did not ask my wife how people knew that the Phii Ling had not caused the deaths. However the important things are that the villagers are at peace and in harmony with their world.