Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Another Lao Loum Funeral Here In Isaan

Hands Pressed Together, A Young Child Participates In the Funeral Ritual
Sunday we attended another funeral ritual, the cremation of my wife's former mother-in-law.  Although Duang has been divorced for many years, attending the ritual was expected because family ties, even former ties, are strong here in Isaan.  Duang's children also attended the cremation ritual for their paternal grandmother.  Duang's son drove six hours from Rayong to participate in his grandmother's funeral.  He did not shave his head and shave his eyebrows like some of his cousins due to his work considerations.  Our grandson, Peelawat, also attended his great grandmother's funeral.

Duang Makes Prayer Offering For Her Former Mother-in-Law

Every funeral that I have attended here in Isaan has been similar but different enough to make each ritual unique.  For this funeral, there was no procession from the home to the local Wat.  When we arrived before the scheduled start of the ritual at 11:30 A.M., the coffin had been placed in front of the Wat crematorium.  There were some people milling about the home of the deceased person but the outdoor kitchen, hustle and bustle of preparing food, tables filled with food and drink were absent.  There was no gambling anywhere to be seen for this funeral.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages were served to attendees in the Wat's sala (meeting hall) next to the crematorium.  Like all the other funerals that I have attended here in northeast Thailand, the "Old Mamas" were organized into several small clusters; busy gossiping and chewing betelnut.  Funerals here are large social events with family and friends travelling great distances to attend. There is a great deal of noise from people greeting each other and getting caught up on the latest news as well as gossip.

"Old Mamas" Socializing and Chewing Betelnut in the Wat's Sala
Just over a week ago I posted a comment on one of my photographs of an old woman's hands preparing betelnut, "Experienced hands, just like faces reflect the trials, struggles, and triumphs of a long life".  I did not have that comment in mind when I set about to photograph this funeral, but afterwards when I was editing the days worth of photographs, I was struck by the number of shots that involved hands.

A Young Child Bows During The Merit Making Ritual
Although I have photographed several Lao Loum funeral rituals, I am still very interested in them and still find different aspects to photograph.  Apparently for this funeral ritual, my focus although subconscious was on "hands".

Hands Pack the Ingredients for Betelnut Chewing Into A Tube to Create a Plug

Experienced Hands Prepare the Chewing Plug

Helping Hands Are Always Welcomed

The Compacted Chewing Plug Is Forced Out of the Tube

At Last - Time to Enjoy the Fruits of Labor
Duang's former mother-in-law had eight children. With such a large family there were many sons and grandsons to participate in the ritual as Monks.  There were 17 Monks for the funeral ritual - the most that I have seen at a Lao Loum funeral.

As is integral to the merit making ritual, the offering of gifts; cash, robes, and electric fans on behalf of the donors and the deceased was a prominent display.  Apparently because she was once married to one of the woman's sons, Duang's name was announced for her to walk up and take one of the envelopes containing some of the donated cash.  As part of the merit making ritual at Lao Loum funerals relatives, close friends, dignitaries, and esteemed guests are called up to take an offering of money which they place in front of the Monks who are always seated above the other participants of the ritual.  For this funeral there was also a different treatment of the offerings made to the Monks.  A white cotton string that is always used in the ritual to connect the Monks and the coffin, was placed over the offertory envelopes with the Monks placing their index finger on the envelope as they chanted.

Monks Accepting Offerings of Cash As part of Merit Making Ritual
The connection of the Sanga (religious community) and the deceased person with the cotton string is very strong visual symbolism.  Once again the interaction of hands and physical as well as metaphorical objects came to be strong elements of my photographs for the day.

The cotton string that connects the deceased person to the Sanga passes through the hand of a grandson who has become a Monk for the funeral ritual

Grandsons Participating In Their Grandmother's Funeral

Duang Pours Green Coconut Water Over the Corpse
At this funeral the ritual of pouring green coconut water over the corpse to prepare the spirit for its upcoming journey was a more public display than the funeral that we attended earlier in the month.  Besides the Monks, family members either poured coconut water or sprinkled water on the body using white chrysanthemum type flowers.

Experienced hands, just like faces reflect the trials, struggles, and triumphs of a long life
I photographed the hands of the corpse because, to me, they were reminders of the suffering as well as triumphs that this old woman had endured during her life time.  These were hands that had worked countless seasons of planting rice seedlings - pulling sprouts from ankle deep mud in flooded paddies, repetitiously setting transplanted seedlings into flooded paddies under the heat and glare of the Isaan skies.  These same hands gathered and cut innumerable sheaves of rice over countless harvests. It is quite possible especially in the earlier years that these hands threshed the rice to separate the grains from the stalks - yet another task of survival to feed the family. During the other times of the year, her hands were used to cultivate sugar cane, peanuts, corn, and cassava.  These were the hands that had nurtured and cared for eight children. Hands that cooked thousands of meals over open fires or charcoal fires.  With these hands the woman had made merit and prayed many times in her quest during this life for enlightenment.  With these hands the woman had sewed, repaired and laundered the clothing of her family during her lifetime.  The hands reflected a long and hard lifetime here in Isaan.  Now these hands were freed from their toil and released from suffering.

An assistant hands a container of fuel to the deceased's brother to prepare the cremation fire
When we returned home that night from the funeral, we received word that Duang's uncle had died.  His cremation will be tomorrow.  Personal reminders of the cycle of life and of death continue here.

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