Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dying In Isaan - The End of Days Part 2

Duang's father died on Tuesday the 19th.  His cremation at the "Inside" Wat of Tahsang Village was planned  for Friday the 22nd.

Wednesday, and Thursday were busy if not frenetic.  Just prior to his death, Duang's father, acknowledging, and accepting the end of his days, had asked her to take care of everything rather than waiting to complete the rituals related to his death.

Here is Isaan, when someone dies they lay in their home for typically three days while arrangements are made and family travel to the home.  The body is cremated on the third day after death.  One hundred days after the cremation there is a ritual called "Tamboon  Roi Wan"

Tamboon Roi Wan, also referred to as "Bone Party" is a merit making ritual that is held 100 days after the cremation of the body.  If for some reason, typically financial, that the ritual can not be held 100 days after the cremation, the ritual can be held at a later date and is called "Tamboon Jaak Khao". Whether 100 days or many years after the cremation, the ritual is identical and the merit is the same.

Rather than waiting 100 days and going through duplicate arrangements as well as costs of the funeral ritual Duang, in accordance with her father's wishes, decided to have the Tamboon Roi Wan for her father on Sunday November 24th.  This added to the duties and tasks that Duang had to complete.

On Wednesday, Duang had to go to the police station in Kumphawapi with the document that was created by the Tahsang Village headman verifying her father's death.  The rest of the day she spent telephoning family, friends, and others notifying them of her father's death as well as giving them the schedule for the various rituals.  She along with her son and his wife were busy buying huge amounts of vegetables, cases of beer, cases of soft drinks, cases of drinking water to feed the mourners who were already arriving at the family home.

Duang also had to make arrangements for the rental and delivery of canopies, tables, plastic chairs, commercial meat grinder, glasses, cookware, ice chests, and all the other items necessary for the next 5 days.  There was also the matter of purchasing pigs, a cow, and chickens to prepare for the visitors and family's consumption.

Duang's youngest brother, who is in the business, was delegated to making the arrangements for the entertainment both traditional Lao music and the modern upbeat Mahlam Zing for Sunday.

After witnessing the activities that were necessary to support the rituals, I now have a better understanding why I do not witness crying at Theravada Buddhist funerals.  In addition to the Buddhist philosophy that accepts death as a necessary part of living and the preparation throughout one's life for their death, the people especially the close relatives are too occupied with the rituals and preparing for the rituals to be able the luxury of grieving and emotional displays.

Elderly Women Maintain their Four Day Vigil In the Home
During the death watch and up the cremation, a contingent, typically 10 to 15, of elderly women maintained a vigil in the room where the body lay inside of the refrigerated coffin.  These women or similar contingents of women at other funerals spend their time gossiping, eating, and sometimes making special handicrafts for the rituals.  No matter what they were doing they were always chewing betel nut (kill maak).  As part of the funeral arrangements, Duang had to provide the vast quantity of leaves, nuts, and tobacco that these elderly women consumed.  The women provided their own lime, spittoons, and tools for making the plugs that they chew.

Throughout the days and evenings people arrived to pay their respects and make their offerings.  They would make an offering of incense to the spirit of Duang's father.  They would light incense from the large yellow burning candle set on a scrap piece of corrugated metal set on the bright blue tiled floor of the home.  The people would hold the burning incense in their praying hands while they softly chanted or just reverently looked at the coffin.  They then placed the burning incense sticks in a sand filled ceramic bowl next to the yellow candle.  They then would seek out Duang to offer their condolences and give her a white envelope containing a cash offering.  Their cash offering would be recorded in a ledger and made as offerings to the Monks in the name of the donor's as well as Duang's father.

I was continually amazed at the help and division of labor that was swirling about me.  Family and neighbors seemed to instinctively know their function to prepare and support the ritual.  At any given time there were at least 5 women cooking food over charcoal fires and portable propane stoves.  At any given time there were a minimum 6 women washing, slicing, chopping and peeling vegetables to be cooked or served raw to the guests.  Men focused on chopping up the beef or pork to form pastes to be cooked or for some of the beef to be eaten raw after being mixed with seasoning.  The men also took care of cutting the pork and beef.

The pigs arrived at the home split in half with all their parts.  Men drank beer and whiskey as they cut and prepared the various parts that the women would cook for specific dishes.  Liver and intestines went into soups.  Bones were also used in soups.

The women and men worked on raised bamboo platforms about 2 feet above the ground surrounded by flies and several village dogs wandering about and often getting underfoot.  Toddlers wandered about oblivious to the work going on all around them.

Younger women and teenage girls traveled back and forth between the tables in the front yard and the people sitting on sahts inside of the home carrying trays of food and dirty dishes.  This is typical at these type of events.  Starting at around the age of 12, young girls contribute to the event by being servers - ensuring that people have food, drink,and ice along with cleaning tables and returning dirty dishes to be washed at the outdoor wash station.

Duang's daughter was for just about the entire time was occupied washing huge plastic tubs of dishes, glasses and cooking pots with plenty of help from younger female cousins.

Duang skitted about welcoming guests, paying bills, socializing, bringing ice to where it was needed, ensuring people were comfortable, and going off several times to local markets to purchase more items.  She had very little sleep during the night because Lao Loum people love to socialize.

I stayed away during the day but returned in the evenings for the evening rituals involving the Monks.

Places Setup for the Arrival of the Monks
Each evening, six to seven Monks arrived at the home around 7:00 P.M.  The purpose of their visit to the home was to conduct a special ritual for the offering of food to the spirit of Duang's departed father.  Duang's cousin who is an Abbott at a Wat in another village arrived each night with the Monk that assists him and most likely replace him in time.  Duang's cousin took the lead in the ritual chanting with "Rocketman" the senior Monk at the "Inside" Wat in Tahsang Village supporting him along with two other monks.  The other Monks did not fully participate in all the chanting.

Duang Making An Offering of Incense to Commence the Ritual As "Rocketman" Looks On
This Spirit Feeding Ritual was special.  There was a special wood carved gilded table that supported  a special wood carved gilded box that contained Buddhist scripture. The special box reminded me of the Ark of the Covenant.  The scripture was a special, perhaps hand printed, book of writing and pictures.  The book was about two feet wide and six inches long.  Before the start of the ritual, the book was removed from the chest, the cover returned to the chest, the book opened to a specific page, and placed on top of the chest.

Duang Makes Offering to Each Monk
As is typical in many of these religious rituals, offerings of cash were made to the Monks.  Cash is presented to each Monk in a plain white envelope.  Themes that I often write on in this blog are "There is the way that things are supposed to be and then there is the way that things are"  and "Things are not always what they appear to be"  These themes definitely apply in the case of these offerings.  Monks give up all their possessions and renounce worldly possessions upon becoming Bhikkhus.  Monks are not supposed to touch or handle money.  Despite that, people seem to always be offering and collecting money for the Monks.  I was shocked to learn that 20,000 baht ($666 USD) had been given to the Monks each night.  I questioned Duang why so much for people who renounced worldly goods.  She told me that it was for electricity, water, septic service and maintenance of the Wat grounds  I make no judgement and only share observations.  We live the good western life in our home - 1,500 baht average a month for electricity, 150 baht a month for service water, and have our septic  tank pumped once a year for 1,000 baht.

Duang Participating In Evening Ritual

Since Duang is the youngest daughter and responsible for taking care of her parents, she represented the family in participating in the ritual.  Rather than sitting with the other women on the other side of the room, she sat on the saht covered floor on the side with the men.  To start the ritual she lit two yellow candles and two joss sticks (incense sticks).  The candles and incense were placed on the top of the ornate table in front of the chest.

This ritual featured some different type of chanting than I am accustomed to.  For the most part of the chanting, the four senior or lead Monks had hand held fan like object shielding their faces.  I asked Duang about what was going on.  The Monks were speaking to the spirit of Duang's father.  When Monks are speaking (chanting) directly to Pii (spirits) they shield their faces.  I asked Duang what they were chanting.  She said that they were saying things like "Good luck to you"  "You go up now"  "You are loved and will be missed by people here"  I pressed her for more details but she did not know.  The Monks were speaking in Pali.  Duang can speak Pali to the extent that it is used in daily offerings but this was beyond her comprehension.  Whatever they were saying it was impressive, almost hypnotic, and reassuring.  Part of the ritual involved the reciting in Pali of the Three Gems of Buddhism which I am able to participate in - always to the surprise of the local people as well as Monks.

Food Offering On Tray to Feed the Spirit of Duang's Father
Part of the ritual involved placing a tray of food and drink in front of the Monks to be blessed. The tray also contained the same offerings of 3 cigarettes, green leaves, and prepared betel-nut plugs that were on plates next to each of the Monks.  As the Monks were chanting into the hand held shields, the Abbott sprinkled water on top of the offerings for Duang's father.  The sprinkling of water and pouring of water in Theravada Buddhism conveys the merit being made by people of this world to the spirits of departed people.

Duang Pouring Water  To Convey Merit to the Spirits, Specifically Her father's
Duang then carried the tray and drink for her father's spirit the short distance to his coffin and placed it beneath the tripod holding his framed photograph.  She reverently placed the tray on the floor and spoke some loving words to her father in Lao.

The ritual was then concluded with the Monks returning to their Wats and after saying good bye to my wife, me returning to Udonthani.

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