Thursday, February 20, 2014

Baan Mat Funeral

I have now caught up with editing and post processing all of my photographs to date.  The front sidewalk across our property has been pressure washed to remove 5 years of accumulated diesel soot and assorted molds to reveal  uniform grey concrete surfaces.  Several house repair and maintenance tasks have been completed so now is the time to catch up on some blog writing.

At the end of January, Luang Paw Pohm Likit, the Forest Monk, called Duang to inform her that one of the women that we knew at the Ban Mat Wat had died.

We had first met the woman in October when we started going out to visit Luang Paw Pohm Likit.  She lived in the near by village of Baan Mat.  Everyday she went out to the forest to bring offerings of food to Luang Paw Pohm Likit and participate in the merit making along with the other lay people.  She was 76 years old with two sons and two daughters.  She radiated a certain dignity and appearance that belied her age in a region where people age quickly due to the hardships of day to day living.  It was readily apparent that she had a "good heart", a nice person.  She was one of the people who had come to visit me in the Kumphawapi Hospital when it was actually my father-in-law who was in the hospital.  Upon realizing the miscommunication, she and the others stopped by our home to visit me on the way back to their village.  We had not been out to Baan Mat due to all our responsibilities regarding Duang's father's death and then one week later the death of his sister-in-law, Duang's aunt.  The woman from Baan Mat had been sick for a week in the hospital before dying.

We had to take an alternative route through Baan Mat to get out to where Luang Paw Pohm Likit stays.  The woman's home was on the direct route - the one lane, narrow concrete lane through the  village leading to the dirt  roads going out into the fields and forest.  As is typical for funerals, weddings, house warmings, Tambon Roy Wan, and Monk Ordinations, the family had set up pavilions, canvas canopies, in the street.  Beneath the pavilions, guests sat in plastic chairs at wood tables eating and drinking.

Duang and I were transporting the Forest Monk for the funeral ritual.  Luang Paw Pohm Likit has a very humble Wat without any crematorium for funeral rituals.  The deceased woman was going to be transported to a nearby village that had a very large Buddhist school as well as all the other facilities of a fully developed Wat.

Luang Paw Pohm Likit sat in the front of the truck with me while Duang sat in the back.  The seating arrangement which is expected practice here serves two purposes.  The first is to show respect to monks because they are considered to be a higher status than lay people.  Being a Monk places a man further along the path of enlightenment than ordinary lay people.  The second purpose is to help ensure that a Monk does not have contact with a woman.  A Monk is not allowed to touch a woman.  When a woman makes an offering to a Monk, she either makes it through a male next to her, drops it into the Monk's bowl, or places it on a cloth that the Monk has placed in front of himself.  Once the woman has placed the offering on the cloth, the Monk pulls the cloth to him thus completing the offering and signifying acceptance of the offering without risk of contact.

After paying our respects to the family and to the woman at her home, the three of us drove to the nearby Wat for the funeral ritual. This was the fourteenth funeral that I have attended here in Isaan in roughly five years.  There are many common elements to the funerals but each one has unique variations and subtleties to distinguish them apart.

All the funerals have been Theravada Buddhist rituals, both Dhammayuttika Nikaya and Maha Nikaya sects.  The Dhammayuttika Nikaya sect is the smaller sect, younger sect, and more conservative sect of Theravada Buddhism here in Thailand.  However as far as I can see the rituals are the same as the much older Maha Nikaya sect.  The difference is not in what they believe but how the Monks practice their faith.  The conservative Dhammayuttika Monks eat only one meal a day whereas the Maha Monks are allowed two meals a day.  My observation has been that the Dhammayuttika Monks wear the darker brown robes whereas the other sect robe's are the brighter saffron or orange robes.

Removing the Coffin From Refrigerated Casket

As was the case for Duang's father's funeral ritual, both Dhammayuttika Nikaya and Maha Nikaya Monks participated in the the funeral ritual for the woman from Baan Mat. For the funeral at the end of January, a big difference was the number of Monks involved in the ritual.  There were 23 Monks in attendance, which far exceeded any other funeral that I have attended.  Typical funerals have 6 or 9 Monks attending.

Typically a major portion of the funeral ritual is performed in a sala - an open pavilion on the Wat grounds - corrugated metal roof, 4 foot high walls - if any at all, tiled floor, raised area for Monks to sit on mats, and a shrine in the corner at the same level as the Monks.  For this funeral, the ritual was performed in a large, very large assembly area for the school students.  The area was so large that I was confused exactly where to go.  Some of the lay people sat on the floor out of the view of where the Monks were - their view blocked by portable school bulletin boards containing announcements, student art, and lessons.  As is always the case here when I look confused, the people smiled and pointed for me to go to the front directly in front of the platform where the more senior monks were located.  Luang Paw Pohm Likit welcomed me and reassured me.  He speaks some English so he gave me some pointers on what to take photographs of.  I consider myself to be fortunate to live amongst such tolerant and friendly people.

A Grandson During the Funeral Ritual

In taking photographs of recurring events, such as funerals, I strive to explore a different aspect or focus on some unique individuals in an attempt to avoid taking the same photograph over and over along time.  I often start off to an event with some specific approach in mind.  Quite often that planned approach is abandoned for the opportunities that present themselves at a particular event.  One of those opportunities is documented in the above photo.  It is a photograph of a Novice Monk.  It is a photograph of a grandson making merit for a deceased grandparent. It is a photograph of mourning.  I have literally hundreds of those types of photographs, so why take this one?  The uniqueness of this photograph is the juxtaposition of the young Novice Monk's robe and the glass of Orange Fanta.

I have never read it any where nor have I been told that it is necessary or required to make offerings of Orange Fanta Soda to Monks but it seems every time that I witness offerings to Monks it includes Orange Fanta.  On the other hand when making offerings to the spirits of the home, garden, or land, Duang and many others offer only Fanta Strawberry Soda.  I have yet to see Fanta Strawberry or Grape Soda offered to Monks.

Monks Accepting Offerings
This funeral was different in that there were many offerings of robes, blankets and towels to the Monks.  Rather than placing the offerings on top of the closed coffin and offering them one by one to individual Monks, the offerings were placed on a series of stepped tables in front of the coffin. In groups determined by apparent seniority the Monks went up the stairs to the coffin and individually accepted an offering.  This seems very strange and goes against every thing that I have read about being a Monk but it is what I observed.  I even just refreshed my memory and verified my memory's accuracy by reviewing my observations this evening with Duangchan.  She confirmed what I saw and did not see was accurate.  I guess this but another example of "There are the ways that things are supposed to be and then there is the way that they actually are"

The Abbott Taps Farewell On the Coffin Three Times With A Daugchan
One typical element of this funeral was the number of children in attendance.  here in Isaan children are not sheltered from death or the funeral ritual.  I have attended a funeral where the local elementary school was let out of school to attend along with their teachers the funeral for a villager.  Children get excited over the throwing of coins wrapped in colorful foil paper along with candy that is tossed to the crowd from the steps of the crematorium just as the coffin is rolled into the furnace - a gesture of giving up of all of this life's and world's goods by the spirit.

Children are allowed to run, play and be joyful as long as they are not doing it in the sala.  The children can always found in the space between the sala and the crematorium eagerly and energetically biding their time for the money toss.  The presence of a foreigner at this funeral taking photographs did nothing to dampen the children's enthusiasm.  I had met the children earlier at the woman's home.  They tentatively tried their rudimentary English skills on me and I was all too willing to try my even less rudimentary Thai skills on them.  We quickly found common ground and bonded over talking about animals.  I knew the names of some animals in Thai from watching Nat Geo Animal Planet on television with our grandson, Peelawat.  Recently we had watched a program about lions, "sinto", and I had developed a pantomime of a sinto turning its head as it was making a huge yawn.  The children loved it - much more so than my impersonation of a "tau" - turtle.

It was not long after I relocated from my position in the sala in front of the Monks that I was reunited with the children.  I took some photographs of them which I willingly shared with them.  Seeing themselves in a digital photograph only encouraged the children to be more creative in their posing.  The ultimate pose that they created was a reenactment of  a the sinto.  It was a fun way to pass the time.  Rather than getting upset with the children or with me for encouraging them, people inside the sala pointed out approvingly to Duang what was going on.  They told her that I had a "good heart" and that I was good with children.

Our day at the funeral ended with us driving off with Luang Paw Pohm Likit not into the sunset but away from the wisps of smoke that commence to flow from the stack of the crematorium.

It had been a good day.  It was good to help the Forest Monk and even better to pay our respects to a nice woman.  Here in Isaan with the openness of funeral rituals and the involvement of so many friends, family, and neighbors there is quick closure to the death experience.

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