Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Same Same But Different"

A Young Boy Places A Daugchan On the Coffin

"Same, same but different" is an often used phrase used here in Thailand.  I have written about the phrase before but once again I am impressed with how meaningful and appropriate it is in describing a situation or condition.  Many falang here in Isaan detest the phrase but I actually embrace the expression.

In my life to date I have visited and positioned myself in many situations that I had previously experienced.  Some would ask, "Why go to Machu Picchu twice?", "Why go to Yellowstone National Park seven times?", "Why do this or that more than once" and "Why go there once again?"  The answer for me is simple.  My answer is "Same, same but different"  Revisiting or placing yourself in position to re-experience something allows a person to greater appreciate the original. The greater appreciation comes from the opportunity to more deeply understand and the opportunity to recognize the nuances that are often overlooked during initial exposure.

So what does this have to do with the photo of a young boy placing a "daugchan" on a coffin?

Two days ago, Duang and I drove out into the Isaan countryside to attend the cremation ritual of a family member - "Cousin of my father".  "Cousin of my father" was an elderly woman who died in the village near Ban Tahsang.  Many of my blogs have dealt with the strong sense of family and community that exists amongst the Lao Loum (Lowland Lao) people of Isaan.  Enjoying the sense of belonging and comfort of such a culture does not come free.  Just as saying goes "There is no such thing as a free lunch", appreciating the benefits of such a culture comes at a cost.  The cost, which I find nominal, is participating in the culture.  With such a large family, 23 Aunts and Uncles, as well as 93 cousins at one time, there always seems to be a wedding, Monk ordination, birth, or funeral that we are expected to attend.  I do not mind and enjoy accompanying Duang in the execution of her "family duties".

Food Offerings for the Spirit Placed On the Floor at the Head of the Coffin

The funeral that we attended the other day was the tenth that we have gone to in two and one-half years. Each funeral has been the same as the others but also different.  The ritual is essentially the same but there are nuances that make each one unique.  Since I am now well familiar with the ritual, there are certain photographs that I expect to take during the ritual.  Because I am familiar with the ritual, I am more capable of looking for and recognizing nuances that make each ritual unique and hopefully makes for more interesting photographs.

Since this was a family funeral, there were many familiar faces in the crowd.  Duang's uncle, the Buddhist Monk, an Abbott to be specific, was the senior Monk in attendance.  "Rocketman", the senior Monk from the "inside" Wat in Ban Tahsang, also participated in the ritual.  Many people in the crowd were people that I have photographed over the past two and one-half years here in Isaan.

Local Government Official Bringing An Offering of Kaithin  His head is bowed in a gesture of respect.
The cremation ritual had all the elements that I have come to expect - the body laying in repose at the family home, people coming to the home with offerings of cash or rice; all of which were duly registered in a ledger, food and drink for visitors, government officials paying insurance money and collections from neighboring villages of the sub-district, offerings of food to participating Monks, sons, grandsons, and nephews with freshly shaved heads and wearing new robes as novice Monks, the procession through the village, the school teacher reciting the deceased person's history and list of immediate family over a P.A.  system to the attendees, the washing of the corpse with coconut water and bottled water, the procession of attendees to the entrance of the furnace to place "good luck charms" (daugchan) on top of the coffin, the tossing from the elevated floor of the crematorium of colorful wrapped coins and candy to the attendees below as the body commences to be cremated, and the firing of three fireworks as smoke starts to rise out of the crematorium chimney.

The following are blog links to previous blogs that I have written regarding funerals here in Isaan.




Duang's Uncle, the Abbott, Accepting Offering of Robe (Kaithin)
Like all the funerals that I have attended here, there were many people taking photographs - any and all photographs.  I typically position myself next to and up against the heavy metal doors to the furnace at the foot of the coffin.  This position gives me fairly good perspective and keeps me from interfering with the ritual.  Doctors have a motto or oath to "Do no harm".  My guiding principle in taking photographs is to "Do not interfere"  This cremation ritual had more photographers than I have encountered previously - just about everyone in Isaan has a cellphone with a camera in it.  Now many of the younger people have smart phones with rather sophisticated camera capabilities built into them.

One of the older men who was helping to organize and guide the activities at the entrance to the furnace asked me where I was from.  I replied "America".  He then asked or rather pantomimed, if the ritual playing out before us was the same in America? I responded by my limited Thai and pantomime that this was very different in America and that taking photographs of the corpse as well as cremation ritual would not be acceptable and most likely start a fight.  He understood but seemed somewhat shocked.

A Young Girl Places Daugchan On Coffin
Prior to opening the coffin to pour coconut water and drinking water on the corpse, attendees walk up the steps of the Wat's crematorium to the coffin that is placed upon two metal sawhorses at the doors to the furnace.  They carry small paper and bamboo objects called "Daugchan", good luck tokens, and place them in metal trays on top of the coffin.  They first "wai", slightly bowing the head as the hands in the praying position are raised to the forehead, and then place their daugchan on the pile building up in the trays.  The wai is the Thai expression of respect that people use to greet each other or to say goodbye.  Some people will knock three times on the side of the coffin in a final farewell gesture.  Other people will call out in controlled voices words to the effect "Good luck to you, I will miss you, I hope to see you again soon."  The scene is always dignified and touching.

From a very age, Lao Loum people here in Isaan learn that this life is of a limited duration and that death awaits everyone.  Children are not sheltered from the consequences of life - death.  Young children attend and participate in the funeral ritual for neighbors, family friends as well as family members.  "Family members" here is not limited to immediate family.  It includes aunts, uncles, cousins and all those connected to them through marriage.

I have been to funerals where the local school had its students, all 36 of them, go to a funeral of a villager as a field trip.

Another Child Prepared to Pay Final Respects

Attending funerals is a civic as well as religious experience for the children.  Our grandson when he was three attended his first funeral.  He didn't fully understand the ritual but he did enjoy the dragon fruit that he was eating during the ritual at the deceased person's home.  He did understand some of the merit making ritual though.  Children at a very early age commence to learn the Buddhist rituals.

One of the first group of people to place daugchan on the coffin of the deceased person, are the young male relatives who have become Novice Monks for the funeral.  They have cut their hair and had their heads shaved as part of the ritual.  They wear Monk robes and are part of the lead contingent of Monks holding on to the si sin  (cotton cord) that is attached to the coffin which has been placed on a farm truck or pick up truck.  After the coffin has been placed on the sawhorses at the entrance to the crematorium furnace, a si sin connects the coffin to the Buddha statue in the open sided building where the Monks participate in the merit making ritual for the deceased as well as participants in the ritual.

After the last daugchan have been placed upon the coffin. the trays are removed, and the thin top of the coffin is removed.  Monks are the first people to pour coconut water on the exposed corpse.  Family members follow the Monks to pour coconut water or drinking water on the corpse.

Family Members Preparing to Pour Coconut Water
The hands of the deceased clasp offerings of special small flowers, small yellow candle(s), and currency.  The currency is for the spirit on its upcoming journey.  Metal coins that get melted in the cremation are recovered and used as talisman for immediate family members.  Men often have a small tube containing a piece of the melted coins or a tooth as part of their amulets they wear around their neck.  This funeral ritual was different because it was the first one where I saw a daughter, let alone a son, place coins in the mouth of the corpse.

The hands of the copse are bound together with cotton cord, very similar to butchers string.  The thighs and ankles are also bound by the same cord with all three bindings connected by cord running down the center-line of the deceased person.  Part of the ritual is for these bindings to be cut using a heavy cane knife or as occurred at this funeral - a rice harvesting sickle. Symbolism and ties to daily as well as religious life are very strong in these rituals.

After the body has been cleansed and refreshed, the blanket and saht that the corpse had been resting upon are removed and brought to an area next to the crematorium to be burned in a separate open fire along with the remaining possessions of the deceased.  Slits are then placed in the thin walled coffin using the heavy cane knife or in this case rice harvesting sickle to drain the coconut water and drinking water from the coffin. The body is rolled on to its side to gain access for making the drain slots.  The body is then rolled back on top of coconut halves that have been placed in the coffin. The daugchan are then placed into the coffin.

The very heavy metal carriage and charcoal bed is pulled out along embedded rails from the interior of the furnace.  Flammable liquid such as diesel fuel or naphtha is poured on the charcoals. The coffin is lifted from the metal sawhorses and placed on top of the charcoal bed.  More flammable fluid is poured around the coffin with some being poured in the coffin.  The heavy metal carriage is then rolled back into the furnace.  The heavy bottom door of the furnace is closed and dogged into place followed by the upper half door.

A Monk will approach a small port in the upper door and place a burning candle or daugchan to commence the cremation.

A the smoke starts to flow out of the crematorium chimney, firecrackers are set off to scare away any bad spirits who may be in the area.  This facilitates the release of the deceased person's spirit on its journey.  As the firecrackers fire off, pandemonium breaks out in the area in front of the crematorium below the furnace platform area.  Handfuls of small denomination coins wrapped in colorful foil and candy also wrapped in colorful wrappings are tossed to the children and some adventurous adults below.

People Scramble For Falling Coins as well as Candy Underneath Si Sein Connecting Crematorium to Sala

It was another funeral - same same but different.  It was an occasion the learn and experience more of the ethnic Lao culture of Isaan.  It was a time to strengthen family as well as community bonds. It was also an opportunity to photograph a unique aspect of life here and to be able to share it with others.  All in all just another great day!

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