Friday, February 1, 2013

Yet Another Lao Loum Funeral

Monk Pours Coconut Water On the Corpse
In early January of this year, we attended the funeral for another family member, one of Duang's uncles from Tahsang Village.

Poopaw Veeboonkul was 60 years old.  He died three days after slipping in the shower and hitting his head.  He was unable to speak his entire life which made communications difficult for him. He did not let his nephew know about the accident until his internal bleeding due to injuries was too great and too late for the hospital to save him.  A life long bachelor he tended to and raised water buffalo.

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Gambling, other than the National Lottery, is illegal in Thailand.  But just as so many things are not always what they seem to be or even what they are supposed to be, gambling does exist and sometimes you do not have to look very hard to find it.  Typically in the small villages that dot the countryside in Isaan, you will find gambling going on where there is a funeral.  I thought that this might be due to a belief that "It is an ill wind that blows no good" in other words ... someone's misfortune in dying is counteracted by someone else's good fortune in a game of chance.  You know - the eastern philosophy of the ying and yang or achieving some balance in the Universe.  Well the reasoning for gambling at a funeral is not so altruistic.  According to my Lao Loum wife who has been to a great deal more of these funerals than me and speaks both Thai and Lao much better than me, the reason for gambling is to ensure that more people come to the funeral ritual.

Apparently the more people that participate or at least attend the funeral, the greater merit that is earned for the deceased person's spirit.  Wether people participate in the ritual or just gamble, they make an offering to the family of money or rice.  The offerings are than made to the Monks in the name of the donor as well as the deceased person.  In an Isaan take on the theme of the film  "Field of Dreams", rather than "Build it and they will come" the belief is "Have gambling, and even more of them will come". In deference to the Lao Loum mores, the police tolerate this gambling to a point.  Once the body starts to be cremated, it is sort of "all bets are off" and the police will stop any gambling and arrest all participants.

For this funeral, the gambling was across the village street at relatives' homes.  Yes, there was so many people wanting to gamble that there were actually two games of chance going on.  The people were playing a dice game called "Hai Low".  The game uses a vinyl cloth that resembles the betting table for a roulette wheel in a casino.  The people place their cash bets on the numbers, combinations, and permutations indicated on the cloth - just like playing roulette.  Three dice are placed on a plate, covered with the cover of a fartip (woven container for storing cooked sticky rice), shook or stirred, and the cover removed to reveal the dice.

While I was off taking photographs, Duang played for a while.  She ended up winning 1,000 Baht, about $30 USD and was smart as well as disciplined enough to quit.  Her aunt who usually runs a game at funerals, ended up losing 50,000 Baht, approximately $1,666 USD for the day.  At the end of the day I went looking for her.  When I found her I told her that I had heard that she was giving away money and I was wondering where my money was. We all enjoyed a good laugh - winning or losing everyone always seems to be able to laugh.

Procession Walking Through the Streets of Tahsang Village
Around 1:00 P.M., which is typical time, a procession lead by Monks traveled from the man's home to the Wat located inside of Tahsang Village. The procession circled the crematorium three times before the coffin was removed from the refrigerated coffin and placed on steel sawhorses in front of the door to the furnace.

Puffed Rice Is Spread On the Ground to Feed the Spirits
It was a very quiet day in the village up until midway through the funeral ritual.  The funeral was on a school day but it ended up being a half-day of classes.  One of the teachers attended the funeral along with her classes.  Her classes are made up of all my little friends from the village.  They immediately saw that I was taking photographs and wanted to get in on the action.  Of course I was all too willing to accommodate them much to the amusement of the other adults.  These are all children from poor families and I like to share with them some of the outside world as well as introducing them to some of the today's technology.  They get such enjoyment out of seeing themselves in a digital photograph that I can not say no to them or dissuade them.

Some of My Tahsang Village Friends
Wat Crematorium In Tahsang Village
It may seem strange to many readers that elementary classes would attend a funeral but here in Isaan children are not shielded from death.  They are taught from a very early age, as in in one year old, to show respect to older people.  Around the village, I am referred to as "Tahallen" (Grandfather Allen).  By having the class attend the funeral the children show their respect for one of their neighbors and also it reinforces the realization that life is temporary.

The Monk Whom I Nicknamed "Rocketman"  Supervising the Ritual
The ritual was supervised by the head Monk of the Wat inside of the village.  I have nicknamed him "Rocketman".  The first time that I saw him back in 2008, he was supervising the construction of homemade rockets at the Wat.

He definitely knew a thing or two about building the gunpowder packed PVC pipe rockets and more importantly you could easily see that he really enjoyed it. Later in the day he was at the competition in another village far from Tahsang where the rockets were being fired off into the sky.

A Relative Pours Coconut Water Over the Corpse
Cleansing and Refreshing the Spirit

After people had poured coconut water and ordinary water on the remains of the man, the strings that had bound his hands and legs together were cut using a cane knife.

Cutting the Ties That Bind
A unique aspect of this funeral ritual involved coconuts.  All the funerals that I have attended here in Isaan utilized green coconuts.  The green coconuts do not have a husk and are cut at their top to allow their watery contents to be poured out on the corpse.  However at this funeral, the coconut shells of mature coconuts were also used.  These are the hard half shells of the coconuts that are typically sold in supermarkets in Europe, Canada, and the USA.  One of the man's relatives used a coconut half shell to touch various parts of the corpse.  When he was completed, the corpse was rolled over and the half shell as well as two others were placed beneath the buttocks and legs of the body.

Pouring Hydrocarbon On Charcoal Bed
The saht and comfortor that were in the disposable coffin were removed and placed in a pile off to the side of the crematorium.  The heavy cane knife that was used to cut the bindings on the hand and feet was used to cut drain holes in the disposable coffin.  While this was going on, a man poured hydrocarbon, I suspect naphtha on the charcoal bed of a heavy rolling metal carriage that had been pulled out of the crematorium furnace.  The disposable coffin was then filled with the good luck pieces that mourners had placed on top of the coffin.  The lid was placed on top of the coffin and it was placed on the rolling carriage.  The carriage was then pushed into the furnace.  The heavy door to the furnace was closed and a Monk ignited the charcoal bed using some burning good luck totems.

As the first wisps of smoke exited the chimney of the crematorium, three large fireworks were fired in succession into the air to scare away any bad spirits that might be in the area intending to interfere with the release of the man's spirit for its journey.  Off to the side of the crematorium, a man reverently buried the food and drink that had been placed upon the coffin as an offering to the man's spirit while the man's belonging burned.

After consulting with a person who knew about such matters, we walked directly to Duang's mother's home. Duang was concerned that if we did not first go back to the man's former home, the newly released spirit would follow us to her parent's house.  The man told her that it was OK to go directly to her parents.

Another day in the cycle of life in Isaan came to a close.

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