Sunday, December 1, 2013

Another Ethnic Lao Cremation



Preparing Offerings for Spirit and Monks

Duang's father was cremated on Friday, 22 November, three days after he had died.  I arrived at the family home in Tahsang Village around 9:00 A.M. to find organized mayhem.

Just as it had been commencing with the death watch on Tuesday, several elderly women were seated on sahts placed on the ceramic tiled floor of the home off to one side of the large room sharing the space with the refrigerated coffin containing the body.  Each woman had a small bamboo woven basket that was filled with several white plastic containers of various sizes each with screw on lids.  The baskets also contained several plastic bags crinkled and somewhat soiled from being used and recycled several times.  The containers and bags contained tobacco, chemical lime, slices of dry areca nut, slices of tender areca nut, betel leaves, "galap nuat" ( Thai or Lao version of Vaseline), often a knife that shows it has been used greatly as well often, and sometimes small mortar/pestle combinations typically made from brass.

The betel-nut chewers spend their time in heavy and often loud animated conversations undoubtedly gossip.  I have often noted that there are no secrets here in Isaan and the extended funeral ritual is optimum for sharing information or extracting information to share later with others.

The elderly women besides chewing betel-nut and gossiping provide an important service for the funeral ritual.  They make many of the offerings that are offered to the Monks, the spirits. and articles to be used in the various parts of the ritual.  Every time that the Monks come to the home to participate in the merit making, each Monk is offered a small plate, dessert plate sized, with offerings of four cigarettes, two plant leaves and /or sprigs of flower blossoms, one birthday cake sized yellow candle, and two rolled up betel leaves, some tender areca nut slices and some dry areca nut pieces.

One night the women prepared lotus blossoms for the ritual,  folding the exterior leaves in towards the center to form a quasi-flower.



On the morning of the cremation, the women were busy preparing the sections of  what I call and best describe as "cotton butcher's string" sii sein that will be used to connect the coffin placed on a pickup truck bed to the contingent of Monks leading the cortege in the procession to the local Wat for cremation.  They busied themselves straightening out the loops of many hunks of string and connecting them together without knots by looping the loops together.

That morning they were also occupied making offerings of an incense (joss sticks), a yellow, a little larger than birthday cake sized, candle, and a sprig of flower buds; all bound together with threads of the sii sein rope wrapped three times around and knotted.

Young Girls Manning the Dish Washing Station

Outside all the activities associated with the feeding and providing refreshments continued for the fourth day.  Once again everyone seem to intuitively know their duties and responsibilities.  Trays of food were carried from the outdoor kitchen to the front yard, more accurately - the two canopies that had been erected in the street in front of the family home.  Guests were quickly seated by a member of the family, given food, provided with drinking water, soft drinks, beer and ice cubes.  Care was taken to ensure that there was always plenty of ice in the buckets at each table.  The tables were just as quickly cleaned after the people had finished eating.  The tables were wiped and prepared for another set of guests who were arriving continually.

The first part of the cremation ritual commenced around 9:30 A.M.  Duang's two brothers and two cousins had their heads and eyebrows shaved in preparation to become Monks for cremation ritual.  I had discussed it previously with Duang about doing the same but she said that I did not need to do it.  She wanted me to take photographs instead.

Duang Uses Electric Clippers On Her Oldest Brother as His Wife Watches

The shaving of the heads and eyebrows is an involved process with several steps.  Just as preparing a male to be ordained as Monk, the person sits in a chair shirtless either holding a large banana leaf or next to someone holding the leaf.  One by one people come forward to cut a piece of hair from his head using scissors and the place the shorn lock into the banana leaf.  The hierarchy for cutting the locks is headed up by the parents, spouse, grand-parents, siblings, esteemed guests followed by all others.  The locks are bundled up in the banana leaf and then buried in the yard.

Electric clippers are then used to cut the hair down to the scalp. For this part of the process a cape is placed on the male.  Use of the clippers is limited to those who actually know how to use them,  Duang had attended beauty school and has a certificate, so she was kept busy that morning.

The last part of the ritual is to actually shave the head and eyebrows.  This was accomplished using disposable straight razors - single edged razor blade with an attached handle - sort of like a long scalpel.  This task is left to a trust and experienced male relative or friend.  The head is rinsed and powdered.  The newly shaved men and boy then walked over to the "inside" Wat to be interviewed by the Abbot to ensure that they are of this world and not nagas.  They then make some vows and are given Monk robes to wear for the day.  They return to the family home with the other Monks from the Wat for the food offering ritual at 11:00 A.M.

Duang, Under the Watch of her Mother, Counts the Money from Tambon Nongwha

The Official Presentation of Tambon Funds to Duang's Mother

After the head shaving a new aspect of the funeral ritual takes place.  In Isaan when some one dies, 100 baht ($3 USD) is collected from every household in the sub district that they live in.  Duang's parents live in Tambon Nongwha which has 11 villages.  At every funeral, several representatives from the Tambon arrive at the home on the day of cremation.  After paying their respects to the deceased person, they sit off to the side of the coffin with members of the family to present the money collected from the households, count the money, recount the money, and count the money once again.  The designated representative from the family signs a ledger that I refer to as "The Book of the Dead" signifying the amount and acknowledging the receipt of the funds.  Just as with weddings and ordinations, monetary offerings are a great display - and a very public display.  At every funeral that I have attended people wanted photographs of the transaction.

Duang Signs "The Book of the Dead"
A short while later, representatives of the life insurance company showed up to payout the proceeds of the policy on Duang's father's life.  The amount of proceeds varies with the policy, Duang's father had a 6,320 Baht pay out ($216 USD) whereas his sister-in-law had a 96,000 baht ($3,200 USD) pay out.  Again there was a big and public display of counting and accepting the proceeds.

Duang Ties One of Three Shroud Covered Offerings for the Monks
The betel-nut chewing ladies also created three bundles of offerings for the Monks.  These offerings of toiletries and other sundries were wrapped up in shrouds like the material used to cover the corpse.  The tops of the bundles were secured with a great deal of attention and effort with sii sein cords.  Duang as the representative of the family was responsible to finish the bundling.  These bundles remained on the floor next to the coffin and when the coffin was removed from the home, they were placed on top.  They remained on top of the consumable coffin at the entrance to the crematorium until they were removed and presented to the Monks as part of the ritual.

Duang Preparing Popped Rice for the Funeral Cortege
Every Theravada Buddhist funeral that I have attended here in Isaan, has had a man walking ahead but off to the side of the vehicle bearing the body.  The man carries either a woven basket or plastic bucket containing popped rice.  Periodically the man spreads handfuls of the popped rice along the funeral cortege route to the Wat as well along the circumambulations of the crematorium.  The sprinkled rice is offered as nourishment to the spirit of the deceased person as well as the spirits along the route.  As part of the preparations for the cremation of her father, Duang as well as her sister, mother, and sister-in-laws had to cook rice grain over a charcoal fire to produce the popped rice.

Even a seemingly mundane task as cooking rice has significant ritual significance when associated with a funeral.  To cook the rice Duang used a freshly cut and prepared banana stalk to stir the grain while steadying herself with a siem, a narrow metal shovel-like tool used in working the rice paddies.  The symbolism is to show the deceased person that the family can take care of themselves and to offer up the work to the spirit.

Duang's Two Brothers
At 10:30 A.M. the local Brahman priest lead the lay people in a ritual to make offerings to the spirit of Duang's father.

The Monks arrived at the home around 1:00 P.M.  Another merit making ritual was performed that lasted about 15 minutes.  Upon completion of the ritual, Duang's father's personal belongings were gathered up and placed in the back of a pick up truck along with the funeral memorials.  The refrigerated coffin was then wheeled out of the house and lifted on to the back of another pick up truck.  As the coffin exited the home, three bursts of firecrackers were set off to scare away any bad spirits that were in the area,

Duang Waits for the Monks to Form Up In Front of Her

The funeral cortege formed up in front of the home lead by the Monks holding on to the sii sein that connected them back to the coffin.  Duang folded off to side carrying a framed photograph of her father.  Behind the Monks, but also holding on to the sii sein as they slowly walked through the village to the "inside" Wat were family members and dignitaries.  More family member, neighbors, and friends walked along both sides of the vehicle transporting the body.

The cortege enter the Wat grounds and circled the crematorium three times counter clockwise.  The body in a consumable coffin was removed from the refrigerated coffin and placed upon steel sawhorses at the door to the furnace.  The laypeople went to one of three places - the covered area in front of the crematorium, the steps of the Bot or in the Sala where the funeral ritual would actually take place.

Duang's Oldest Brother Inside of Sala
Things went rather smoothly but not without some laughter.  A big part of the Theravada Buddhist funeral ritual here in Isaan is calling out people's names to participate directly in the ritual.  When your name is called, you walk over the the steps of the crematorium where you are given an envelope containing a cash offering.  You then walk up the steps to the entrance of the furnace where the coffin is located.  You reverently pay your respects to the deceased person and place the envelope on a metal tray on top of the coffin.  I was up at the coffin taking photographs of the people making the offerings when I heard "Duangchan Veeboonkul", my wife's maiden name.  I thought that it was a little odd using her maiden name.  I waited.  We all waited.  I waited some more.  We all waited some more.  Nothing was happening.  It seemed like an eternity when some of the old ladies started cackling at Duang.  People all started laughing.  Realizing that this was a humorous event, I yelled out in Thai that it was "Duangchan Hale, not Duangchan Veeboonkul" and shook my fist.  Duang hurried to the steps to get her envelope - laughing and embarrassed at the same time - much to every one's amusement.  We have been officially married for five years so she is not accustomed to being called "Veeboonkul".

When the cover of the consumable coffin was removed for the pouring of water and placing of "daugchan", good luck charms, on the body, I was somewhat relieved to see Duang's father in the same position and expression as when I had declared him dead.  I was sure that he was dead but it was the first time that I had done that.  I did notice that there was quite a bit of condensation on his skin when the coffin was opened.  I had not seen that before.  Later, this week, I found out that the family had left the refrigerated coffin on for too long. That will be the subject of a future blog.

The Monks Are the First To Pour Coconut Water On the Body
The Monks were the first to pour coconut water on the body after supervising the cutting of the bindings on the body and the opening up of the shroud.  After they returned to the Sala, family members climbed the steps to pay their respects and pour the coconut water on the corpse.

Duang's Mother Says Good Bye and Wishes Her Husband Good Luck

Duang Pours Water On Her Father As Her Son Collects Daugchan
After everyone had paid their respects and placed a good luck charm, daugchan, the cushion, saht, and shroud were removed from the coffin and placed in the pile with Duang's father's personal items to be burned  on the ground next to the crematorium.  The corpse was rolled on its side so that split coconuts could be placed underneath the body.  I suspect that elevating the corpse above the base of the coffin facilitates the cremation process.  Using heavy cane knives, men made slits in the bottom of the coffin to drain it.

The consumable coffin was lifted by several men as the heavy metal charcoal filled carriage was pulled out from inside of the furnace.  As the consumable coffin was being lowered on to the charcoal bed, a man emptied two Lao Lao (375 ml) glass bottles containing hydrocarbon on the charcoal bed.  Once set in the proper place, the body inside of the consumable coffin was doused with another bottle of flammable fluid.  The carriage was rolled back into the furnace, the heavy metal doors closed and dogged off.  The senior Monk, "Rocketman", then placed a lit daugchan through the ignition portal to set the corpse ablaze.

As the charcoal was ignited, three large fireworks were launched into the air causing large bangs.  Again the fireworks are intended to scare away any bad spirits in the area as Duang's father's spirit commences its journey.


The Last Food Offered to Duang's Father's Spirit Is Buried By a Nephew
One of Duang's cousins took the tray of food that had been offered as nourishment to her father's spirit and buried it on the wat grounds using a siem.

Other family members set the pile of her father's possessions on fire but not before one of Duang's aunts first intervened and removed some articles of clothing as well as his portable radio.


The cremation ritual was over around 3:00 P.M.  I prepared to return to our home in Udonthani.  Duang would remain in the village with her family.  The cremation was over but as hucksters so often scream on late night television "But wait, there's more!"

After a person is cremated in Isaan, there is another ritual held called "Tamboon Roi Wan" or "Bone Party.  This ritual theoretically is held 100 days after the cremation.  In reality it is often held when the family has the financial resources to afford the event - an all day and all night eating, drinking, merit making and entertainment ritual.  When I say that some of the best parties that I have attended here have been funerals I am referring to these "Bone Party"

When he knew that he would be dead soon, Duang's father asked her to take care of him now rather than waiting 100 days or even longer for his Bone Party.  To comply with her father's wish, Duang planned his Bone Party for Sunday, two days after his cremation.

Looking Back At the "Inside" Wat

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