Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Scenes from a Lao Loum Funeral

Merit Making for Funeral Ritual In Baan Tahsang
Here in Isaan, I have written of the rhythm of time marked by the cycle of work in the fields surrounding my wife's home village, Baan Tahsang (Tahsang Village).  Time is also marked by the passage of life's milestones within the extended Lao Loum family as well as within the villages that dot the Korat Plateau of Northeast Thailand.

Since we have returned to Isaan approximately two months ago, we have been immersed in the joyous milestone of the birth of a baby.  We have also enjoyed meeting all the babies that have joined my wife's extended family during the past year and one-half.  But just as there is the sweet and the sour for food, the ying and the yang of philosophy, there is the life milestone of death that marks the passage of time.

On Friday, an elderly invalid woman of Tahsang Village died.  She was the sister of Duang's aunt, which over here made her Duang's aunt.  I have never fully understood or appreciated family ties beyond aunts, uncles, and first cousins so I am overwhelmed with the extended ties in the Lao Loum culture of my wife's family.  Rather than trying to fully understand the varied and myriad relationships, I just accept whatever I am told by my wife.

The woman, who Duang also referred to as "Grandmother" had nine children during her lifetime.  Apparently "Grandmother" is an endearing term for an elderly woman just as "Old Momma" is an informal term for older women.

One of the woman's children, her youngest daughter (Duang's "cousin") had returned from the Netherlands to pay her respects to her dying mother.  She was scheduled to return to Europe on Sunday but her mother's death on Friday changed those plans.  Typically there is a three day funeral ritual in the Lao Loum culture.  The three day period allows the family time to prepare for the cremation of the deceased.  I also suspect that the three day period also has connections and connotations to Buddhism.  In Buddhism the number, 3, is very special.  During rituals, people will bow their heads three times; and repeat certain words three times.  When making offerings people will burn three joss (incense) sticks, and light three small yellow candles.  When people place gold leaf on statues, it is three squares of gold.  "Three" is significant in that it represents "Buddha", "The Teachings of Buddha", and "The Buddhist Religious Community".

A Sister of the Deceased Prays In Front of Coffin
On the day of a person's death, the family cleans the body and places it in a disposable coffin.  The disposable coffin, which will be consumed in the cremation fire, is then placed inside of a rented refrigerated coffin.  Typically the refrigerated coffin is kept inside the home but for this funeral it was placed outside underneath a covered work space next to the house.  Offerings are placed on top of the coffin.  Plastic flowers, real flowers, and strings of blinking lights are strung along the length of the coffin.  On the floor in front of the coffin, a shrine assembly is set up where people can make offerings, burn incense, and light candles. In front of the coffin as well as above it, special memorial wreath like objects are placed.  To the side of the coffin, a large framed photograph of the deceased person is placed on an easel. Next to the photograph, there is an area where donations of rice are collected in the name of the deceased.  People when they come to pay their respects donate cash and/or rice to assist the family and to make merit.  The cash is used to help defray the costs of the funeral, offered to the Monks as part of merit making ritual for the deceased, and the rice is donated to the Monks who will provide it to people who are unable to afford food from local markets.

Donations of Rice Are Consolidated to be Offered to the Monks
A vigil is maintained for the three days that the coffin is in place at the home.  Each evening at 6:00 P.M. of the first two days of the ritual, Monks visit the home and chant.

Food Is prepared For All the Ritual Attendees
During the first two days, family and friends are busy making arrangements for the cremation on the third day.  A field kitchen is set up to prepare food for people who will be participating in the three day ritual.  Tables and plastic chairs are rented and set up.  Canopies are rented and set up to shelter people from the sun and the possibility of rain. Drinking water, Lao whiskey, soft drinks need to be purchased for each table for each day.  Beef and pork are purchased and chopped into a paste like consistency to make laap, a Lao Loum specialty dish.  Women are busy preparing papaya to make "Pauk Pauk" - spicy papaya salad, a staple of Isaan cuisine.

Under Papaya Trees, Women Prepare Papaya to Make Pauk Pauk
On the third day, the day of cremation, People started arriving around 9:00 A.M. After paying their respects to the deceased, they sat at tables and commenced to eat and drink. As often happens here in Isaan the men and women drifted off to segregated groups. The atmosphere was of a grand social gathering as if an affirmation that life goes on although death has taken away a person from the community.  Part of this may be attributable to the Buddhists preparing all their life for the moment of their death and the openness of the Lao Loum death rituals.  Death is not a dark secret to be ignored and hidden from view.

A Group of Women Socializing Prior to Start of Ritual
 Children witness and participate with the community in the death rituals of family, friends, and neighbors. Death is as much a life milestone for the Lao Loum community as birth, Monk ordination, and marriage. To a certain extent, while the ritual is solemn, respectful; it was also a sort of celebration in the sense it recognized that life is suffering and that the deceased person's suffering in this life had ceased.

Monks arrived around 11:00 A.M. for the start of the merit making ritual.  The merit making ritual is offering food to the Monks in the name of the deceased.  The Monks were from the Wat inside of Tahsang Village.  They were lead by the Monk that I have nicknamed "Rocketman" because of his knowledge and participation in building as well as launching homemade rockets.  One of the other Monks was Duang's uncle who became a Monk three months ago.  He has been a subject of many of my photographs and mentioned in several of my blogs.  His transformation and progress on this path have been both reassuring and a source of joy for us.

There is an interesting aspect of funerals here in Isaan.  There is no legal gambling here in Thailand other than in a national lottery.  However I have never been to a funeral here where there was not gambling going on. The gambling is conducted off to the side.  I understand that for approximately $30 to the "right" policeman, you can get a "permit" which ensures that your gambling operation will not be "interfered" with.  From what Duang tells me, gambling at a funeral can be good for you, something about having "good luck".  She also added that when there is gambling more people attend the ritual. I don't know but Duang did win 500 baht (about $14 USD)

Gambling at the Funeral
Prior to the Monk's arrival, a grandson had his hair cut and eyebrows shaved in preparation to be a Monk for the cremation ritual.  Typically the sons, nephews, and grandsons of the deceased will become Monks for the entire three day ritual.

An Uncle Cuts Young Man's Hair Surrounded By Papaya Trees

Electric Clippers Provide A Closer Cut

Straight Razor Is Used to Remove Eyebrows
After his had washed all the clippings from himself, the Grandson went to the shrine in front of his Grandmother's coffin and made an offering.  As part of the ritual, he was asked by a Brahmin - "Are you a human?" and other liturgical questions for the young man to be a Monk for a day.

Young Man Becoming Monk for the Day
After the brief ritual, the young man retired and returned in full Monk's clothing to take his position on the raised platform with the seven other Monks for the merit making ritual.

Monks Chanting As Part of Merit Making Ritual

Paying for a funeral is a financial burden for a family.  Many people purchase commercial life insurance for the expressed purpose of paying for the funeral and big party typically held one year after the death.  The woman who died did not have commercial life insurance but participated in a government insurance program.  People pay 50 baht, about $1.50 USD, a month and when they die the local government pays 12,000 baht ($400 USD).

Part of the funeral ritual was local government officials attending the funeral and paying off on the government insurance.  The money is publicly presented and counted prior to being made as an offering to the deceased.

Nongwha District Official Presents Government Insurance Benefit

"Book of the Dead" Is Updated By Local Government Officials
After completing the merit making at the home, the coffin was loaded on to a pick up truck for the procession to the Wat.

Monks Lead the Funeral Cortage On To Wat Grounds

As part of the ritual at the front of the crematorium oven, coconut water was poured over the corpse.  Unlike previous funerals that I have attended, the pouring of coconut water was limited to only participation by the Monks.

"Rocketman" Pours Coconut Water Over the Corpse

Family, Friends and Neighbors Place "Daht Mi Jon" On Coffin
Towards the end of the funeral ritual at the Wat, people climb the stairs of the crematorium to place good luck tokens, "Daht Mi Jon" on the coffin.  These tokens are purchased at a specialty store and are made from strips of bamboo and paper.

Great Granddaughter Leaves After Paying Last Respects
The daht mi jon were collected and placed on the corpse inside of the coffin.  A cane knife was used to punch drainage/ventilation holes inside of the coffin.  The holes allowed the coconut water to drain out and to assist in the combustion when the coffin was placed in the oven.

The Coffin Is Placed Upon A Charcoal Bed
The coffin was then lifted off of the metal saw horses and placed upon a bed of charcoal atop a metal wheeled carriage.  The sides of the coffin were doused with about a liter of hydrocarbon fluid - it was not diesel, it smelled very strong but I suspect that it was not gasoline.  It might have been naphtha since when it was ignited it was not as explosive as gasoline.  The carriage was rolled into the oven, the doors were closed and secured.  A Monk took a burning decoration and placed it inside of an ignition port on the oven door to start the cremation fire.

As the fire started, a string of very large firecrackers went off.  These firecrackers were balls about 2-1/2 inches in diameter. They were extremely loud, concussive and quickly filled the area with a dense grey smoke.  I, from my position at the doors to the oven, was somewhat shell shocked by the explosions.  I suspect that was a good sign.  The fireworks were set off to scare away any bad spirits that were in the area as the woman's spirit was released by the fire.  I doubt any spirits would hang around after such  fusillade.

As the fireworks were going off, a couple of the relatives started throwing handfuls of candy, coins, and other mementos from the crematorium steps to the awaiting children and adults below.  This act represents the renunciation of material goods by the deceased persons spirit as it commences it journey.

Children React to Fireworks and Tossed Mementos

Once again I was touched by the dignity, respect and love exhibited during the Lao Loum funeral ritual.  The Lao Loum funeral rituals demonstrate the strong sense of family and community that help bind the people together.  The social fabric of Lao Loum culture is colorful and tightly woven.


  1. Very nice and thorough description Allen.
    I have on three occasions been invited to attend funerals, actually one interment and two cremations. The invitation was in each case with the specific intention of me documenting it. Initially I was a bit taken aback by that idea, but you adapt to the situation.
    Thanks for reminding me, when i get settled in a few weeks i'll try and pubish some more about it.

    Great pix!

  2. Kees: Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate your comments and encouragement. I was taken aback too at my first funeral. I have evolved to the point now that at this one I was using a lightstand mounted speedlite at the crematorium oven door. Now I have to get some prints done to give to the people. Best wishes to you and Dorothy on your Timor assignment. I hope that they don't mind being photographed!