Monday, October 22, 2012

Death Be Not Private - A Lao Loum Experience

A Lao Loum Woman Mourns Her Brother's Death

John Donne in his poem, "Death Be Not Proud", wrote:

          "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
           Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so; ..."

Here in Northeast Thailand in the region called "Isaan" a similar attitude prevails and from my personal experiences I would add "Death Be Not Private"  In the Lao Loum culture most often a person will die surrounded by family and friends.  One certainty is that their funeral will be a large public event.

On Thursday I attended the third funeral ritual of this month.  One of Duang's uncles, her father's oldest brother, died at the age of 77. He was a special man. Paujon Veeboonkul (Wirboonkun - Thai names can have several English spellings) had performed our "wedding" and also officiated at the blessing of our home  and

Kuhn Paujon Conducting Our Wedding Ritual
When he became ill two years ago, it was determined by another Brahman that the problem was due to Kuhn Paujon not being fully sanctioned to perform the spirit house installation, The spirits were upset with him.   At the time the Brahman priest stated that Duang's uncle would die within 2 weeks if the spirit houses were not relocated and properly dedicated.  Duang had the ritual performed and her uncle lived almost 2 years more to the day.  Again, as I have written several times before, I do not judge or proselytize; I merely share what I have observed and experienced.

Kuhn Paujon was a school teacher, a very respected profession amongst the Lao Loum people.  Teachers and Policemen are professions that are held in high regard by the people of Isaan.  These are uniformed positions that although not commonly attained can be attained by the children of the subsistence farmers of Isaan.  Duang's uncle's only son is a policeman and so are two of his grandsons - a source of pride for the family.

Kuhn Paujon besides teaching 14 year old students, was a Brahman priest.  He was familiar with the various religious rituals of the Buddhist, Hindu, and Animist faiths.  His knowledge and services were in constant use for weddings, births, sickness, house blessings, deaths, and all occasions where it was deemed necessary to placate the spirit world.  He had been a Monk for five years before he got married.  After ten years of marriage he had a son.

Duang's uncle was special in another way - he had two daughters.  One daughter was the child of villagers who were not financially able to raise the baby.  At birth, the parents signed papers for Kuhn Paujon and his wife to adopt the baby.  His other daughter is Duang's older sister.  When Duang was born, her family was too poor to raise two children.  Duang's uncle and his wife took in Duang's older sister and raised her as their own child.  Such is the way it is in Isaan, then and even today.

For this and many other reasons, Kuhn Paujon was highly respected and revered in the local community.  He spent the past two months in the hospital ding of what I suspect was colorectal cancer.  His bill for the hospital stay was 140,000 Baht ($4,666  USD).  In Thailand there is no national health coverage and her uncle did not have health insurance.  Family members, friends, and neighbors have contributed to help pay the bill.

While in the hospital, Kuhn Paujon was not alone.  Daily his personal needs were met by attentive family members. Part of the Lao Loum tradition is to have a death watch hopefully that at the time of passing the dying person will hear words of encouragement according to my wife along the lines of " OK, you go now.  Good luck to you.  You not go down down you go up.  Buddha take care of you  You not think too much.  You poor now.  Maybe you come back soon better maybe come back as King. Good Luck to you".  When he died, his body was transported back to his home in Nongdaeng Village to lie in state for three days.  Since Duang was so close to her uncle, she stayed at the village for the entire ritual.  I remained at home but attended the cremation ritual on Thursday.

So why am I writing once again about a Lao Loum funeral?  I am writing once again about a funeral here in Isaan because the ritual and experience here is neither private or an event to be dreaded.  This is very foreign to me and my American experience.  I am fond of quoting the Buddhist attitude towards death as 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"  he states "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.

I share these funeral ritual experiences to provide a perspective on the matter that is most likely not available to many of this blog's readers.  It is not a morbid curiosity or obsession that motivates me.  The blogs on the Lao Loum funeral ritual are documentation on the inevitability of death for all of us, how common and often that it occurs, and how other cultures deal with the event.

On the morning of the cremation, people arrived at the family home in Nongdaeng Village.  One of the first things that they do after giving wais (prayer type gestures of respect and greeting) to the tables of guests who are seated, drinking and eating is to go to a table next to the public address system.  Seated at the table next to a man that is performing a running commentary over the top of recorded ethnic music is a man with a ledger and pen.  Cash donations are given to the man who dutifully records the name of the contributor as well as the amount of cash donated.  The commentator uses the ledger to announce the arrival of the mourner as well as their cash donation.  The cash will be donated to the local Monks in the name of the deceased, the selected person who presents the donation, as well as the donor. Some people who do not have cash to donate will contribute sacks of sticky rice, the stable food for the Lao Loum people. These contributions are also recorded in the ledger and dutifully announced to the public.  The rice donations are made and kept in front and to the side of the coffin inside of the home.  Periodically the smaller sacks are consolidated  into a large 55 kg bag.  The rice is given to the local Wat in the name of the deceased and donor for the Monks to distribute as needed to very poor people. Costs for the food, drink, and other funeral expenses are paid from family savings, bank loans, family donations, friend donations, neighbor donations and insurance payments.
A Villager Places A Donation of Sticky Rice In Front of the Coffin
Funerals are grand social events in the Lao Loum culture.  It is an opportunity for people to get together and to be seen.  For most it seems to be also an opportunity to be heard. There is a great deal of social pressure to participate in the ritual.  One of the reasons that the cremation takes place three days after the death is to allow family and friends to arrive from distant locales.  The funerals, at times, are not silent and somber events.  There is a great deal of talk, at times even during the religious chanting.  There is typically a great deal of drinking - beer and Lao Lao (Lao version of moonshine whiskey).  Sometimes, but not at this funeral, there is also gambling. However the funerals are always dignified.

Mourners Inside of Kuhn Paujon's Home
Mourners typically wear black or dark clothing at a funeral with the exception of teachers who wear their khaki colored uniforms.  At this funeral there were some woman dressed in white.  We are approaching the end of Buddhist Lent.  During Buddhist Lent some females make special merit by wearing white while making merit and attending religious retreats at the Wat.  My wife did not attend a retreat but she wore white clothing each night while praying before bed.

The Abbott, Paujon's Brother, Recites Buddhist Scripture from a Buddhist Scripture Book
Approximately 350 people including government officials attended the cremation ritual. Children of all ages also attended and participated in the event. Funerals are not life events that children are sheltered from. Lao Loum funerals are rituals just as important and public as weddings, Monk ordinations, and celebrations of birth are for the individual as well as the community.  Funerals are reminders of the fate that awaits all of us.  Funerals are reminders to the Lao Loum of the circle of life and the quest for enlightenment.

Duang's Aunt Pours Water As Part of Merit Making Ritual for her Husband
Part of the standard Buddhist Merit Making ritual involves pouring of water while the Monks chant.  The pouring of the water is a method of transferring merit to the spirits of those who can not participate in the ritual.  After the ritual is completed the water is reverently poured slowly at the base of trees and plants that are around the Wat.  I usually can tell what tree to select because they are often marked with decorations indicating that a spirit dwells within the tree.

Led by Monks Holding Disaisin, Procession Departs the Home For the Wat
After a merit making ritual in the family home, the coffin was loaded upon a pickup truck and transported in a procession to the local Wat led by the Monks holding on to a cotton cord that was attached to the coffin.  A man walked at the head of the procession with the Monks sprinkling the ground with puffed rice carried in a woven basket.  He also stopped at times along the route to mark the journey with small flags.  The puffed rice is offered as nourishment to the local spirits - apparently a well fed ghost is a happy ghost and less likely to cause problems.  The flags are also an offering to the phii (ghosts) and I suspect denotes a demarcation between their territory and the space being used by the funeral procession.

Puffed Rice Is Offered to the Spirits As the Procession Circles the Crematorium
A cotton cord, called "disaisin" is carried by the Monks and is attached at the other end to the coffin. In the Animist world there are many spirits.  In each human there are 32 spirits that are necessary to keep a person healthy and happy.  An Animist ritual which is ubiquitous in the Lao Loum culture is the Baicii or Baisii.  In the Baisii ritual, pieces of cotton string are tied around a person's wrist to bind the 32 good spirits in their body thereby ensuring good luck, fortune, and good health.  For a large congregation of people the disaisin apparently serves a similar purpose - to connect this world with the spirit world.

Disaisin Connects Coffin to Nearby Sala for Part of Funeral
The procession circled the crematorium three times - symbolic for Buddha, The teachings of Buddha, and the Sanga (Buddhist religious community).  At the conclusion of the circumambulation, the inner coffin containing the corpse was removed from the refrigerated coffin, carried up the concrete stairs and placed upon metal sawhorses located in front of the door to the oven

Paujon's Nephew Escorts His Uncle's Coffin Around the Crematorium
The Sala is a covered open sided building where the Monks gather for merit making rituals.  They as always are seated above the congregation of people.  This is symbolic of the respect the people have for them and a demonstration of the higher status in this life that Monks have attained.

Some people are selected to present offerings such as Monk's robes.  These too are placed atop the closed coffin

Seated In the Sala, Monks Pass Daisaisin That Links Them to the Coffin
Off to the side of the Sala there is a commentator and public address system. Part of the ritual involves reciting a eulogy for the deceased. Another part of the ritual is to announce and call up esteemed guests, family members, and close friends. The selected people are each given a sealed envelope containing cash to be offered in their name and in the name of the deceased. The selected people, one by one climb the crematorium stairs, pay their respects and place the offering on the coffin.

Following Her Sister, Duang Makes An Offering to Her Uncle
After the selected people had gone up the crematorium stairs to present and place cash offerings on the coffin the tray of envelopes were removed and people were called out to take an envelope and place it in front of a Monk seated in the Sala as an offering in the name of the presenter as well as the deceased.

After the ritual of offering and accepting, all people picked up a totem called a "daugjen" from a table at the foot of the crematorium stairs.  Daugjens are small handicraft items that are constructed of bamboo and/or paper that symbolize good luck tokens for the spirit about to be released by the flames on its journey.

A Young Girl Prepares To Place A Daugjen On the Coffin

After Knocking Three Times, Some Final Words
In a poignant and respectful gesture, one of the mourners after placing a daugjen in a common metal tray atop the coffin, bent down at the side of the coffin, rapped three times on the coffin's side and quietly uttered some last words of farewell.

Daungchan Places A Daugjen On Her Uncle's Coffin
Headman of Tambon Siaw Places A Monk's Robe On the Coffin

Monks Accepting Robe Offerings
After the offering portion of the ritual was completed, the top of the coffin was removed to expose the corpse.  Starting with the Monks, followed by family members and then selected guests, coconut water was poured over the corpse.  The pouring of coconut water is the final cleansing of the body prior to cremation and to nourish the spirit for its upcoming release and journey.

A Novice Monk Prepares To Pour Coconut Water On the Corpse of His Grandfather
After pouring of the coconut water is completed, the saht (a woven reed mat) and or comforter that the body was laying on is removed and taken off to an area at the base of the crematorium to be burned with other personal possessions.  Holes are punched into the bottom of the coffin to drain the coconut water.  The coffin is then lifted and placed on to a wheeled metal carriage containing charcoal. doused with a hydrocarbon accelerant and wheeled into the crematorium oven.  As the flame starts to ignite the body, fireworks are launched into the air to scare off any bad spirits that may be hanging around the area.  The intent is to clear the way for the deceased person's spirit as it starts its journey.

At the same time that the funeral fire is starting and the fireworks are exploding, in an act of renouncing this world and its worldly possessions, family members throw wrapped hard candy and colorfully wrapped coins to the awaiting crowd consisting mainly of children.

Children Scramble to Gather Candy and Coins Tossed As a Demonstration for the Renunciation of Worldly Goods and Possessions

This was yet another funeral that I have witnessed.  But during this funeral I found myself internally celebrating and taking comfort in the ritual.  The familiarity of a ritual that has been practiced over 2,000 years seemed to provide a link to the past all the while of serving as a map to a future destination. Death seems to be more familiar and less frightening; something that I have just begun to experience but is taught from an early age in Isaan.  Like so many situations in life, fear and the lack of knowledge impart greater power than is justified by facts.

                   "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
                    Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so; ..."

As I have at every funeral here in Isaan, I walked away impressed with the dignity, respect, and compassion that the community had demonstrated  for one of their own.

Young Boy Watches the Smoke Ascending From Crematorium

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