Monday, March 2, 2015

Gone too soon - An Isaan Funeral

The Wat's Cremation Furnace

Last week, we attended the cremation ritual for a family member from the village next to Duang's home village of Tahsang Village.

In the six years that we have lived in Isaan, we have attended twelve other funerals.  All the previous funerals shared a get deal of similarities in circumstances and differed only in minor aspects of the ritual.

In the previous twelve funerals the people had all died of natural causes and were relatively elderly people.
Last week's funeral ritual was different in that involved a 25 year old man who had died violently - a victim of his own sadness.  He went missing in the morning and was not discovered until 5:00 PM that evening on the grounds of the local elementary school hanging from one of the many large trees located at the school.
"Allen's World" or perhaps more correctly, the world that I now live in is a very spiritual world.  The local people are albeit Theravada Buddhists, their life is dominated and to a great extent influenced by Animist beliefs.  The perceived need to appease, placate, respect, and honor spirits over thousands of years has resulted in a culture, tradition, rituals, and practices that I find extremely interesting.
Typically the body remains inside the family home for three or four days and is cremated on either the fourth of fifth day.  The longer period is usually for very old people who have died and many people want to pay their respects.  People earn merit by being involved in the funeral ritual of people however there is more merit to be earned associated with the death of a very old person.  Of course this is contingent upon the person not dying in a violent manner.  If a person has died violently they are cremated as quickly as possible - typically the next day or two days later.
Violent death is believed to disrupt and agitate the 32 spirits that people believe reside within people.  As such, the spirits create problems, haunt people, and can even kill people.  Because of this belief , the body of someone who has died violently is not kept in the family home awaiting cremation.  Victims of violence are kept at the local Wat for the entire funeral ritual period.  Apparently the grounds of the Wat, are inhabited by good pii (spirits) which keep the evil pii at bay.
Besides the body reposing at the local Wat, the food preparation, cooking, and serving meals took place at the Wat rather than at the home which is the normal practice.
I brought my camera gear to the cremation ritual but I was not sure that I would be taking photographs.  The previous funerals that I have photographed were monolithic ethnic Lao funerals.  In the case of last week's funeral, there was a foreign Step-Father.  Although I know him, I was not certain of his attitude towards photography of such a personal event.  My uncertainty and reservations were quickly abated when upon paying my respects to him he asked me to take photographs and provide him with an album of the photographs.  He then asked for a specific shot that I had not considered taking due to the circumstances of the death.  I agreed to both requests.
People here in Isaan have no issues with taking photographs at a funeral or taking photographs of the open coffin.  People are shocked when I tell them, I would never consider taking photographs at an immediate family member's funeral let alone a second cousin's or friend's funeral back in the United States.  Here in Isaan there are no taboos or issues with photographing funerals.  In fact with the increased popularity of tablets and cell phones, more and more people are joining me.
Woman Paying Respects
The refrigerated coffin was placed in one the pavilions located a short distance from the cremation furnace on the Wat's grounds.  The coffin was covered and surrounded by many fresh floral arrangements.  Three cloth bundles containing material goods such as soap, matches, drinking cup, flashlight etc  offerings for the Monks were located on top of the refrigerated coffin.  Multiple strands of flashing lights, just like Christmas tree lights, were strung over the coffin.  In front of the ornately decorated coffin there three large bowls.  One bowl, the ubiquitous ornate pressed metal type used in all rituals, was for people to drop their envelope containing a cash offering.  A second bowl, a thick ceramic bowl filled with sand, was available for people to place their single smoldering incense stick (Joss stick) after paying their respects.  The third bowl contained a large lit yellow candle surrounded by more incense sticks.
To the sides and above the coffin were several large special offerings.  The special offerings are called "pualeet".  Pualeet are large cardboard squares and rectangles roughly 48 inches and 60 inches covered with clear plastic wrap.  Inside of the pualeet are offerings such as cushions for Monks to sit on, clocks, towels, toiletries, flashlights and other items useful for Monks.  The interior of the pualeet is also tastefully decorated with artificial flowers, sequins, and graphic elements.  All pualeets have a custom banner printed across them identifying the donors and a short message.  The messages are printed and placed on a backing while you wait at shops that specialize in funeral accessories.
Pualeet - Containing offering of a Monk's Cushion and Carry-Bag
Off to the side and in front of the coffin was a common metal serving tray upon which several dishes of small servings of various foods were placed along with a glass of drink .  There was also a kong kao (woven container) filled with sticky rice next to an opened bottle of ice tea drink.  These were the food offerings to the spirit of the young man.
One framed photograph of the young man had been placed on top of the coffin and another framed photograph was placed next to the coffin.  In anticipation of death, many people will have a professional photograph taken and framed for the specific purpose of being used in the funeral ritual.  My father-in-law had his ready for his death last November and my mother-in-law has hers ready for her day.  If a person does not have a professional portrait, the family has the photograph on the person's National Identity Card reproduced and enlarged into a roughly 14"x20" framed photograph to be displayed on a stand next to the coffin and at the foot of the stairs going up to the furnace later on in the ritual.
Some people who come to pay their final respects make an offering of rice rather than money.  Typically the offering is roughly one quart of rice.  A family member takes the plastic bags of rice and dumps them into a 55 KG sack off to the side of the coffin.  The large sack or sacks of rice are offered to the Monks who will give it to people in need throughout the year.
A Grandmother Mourns
A merit making ritual was performed with the Monks at the pavilion where the coffin had been located since the day of the death. 
Weathered Hands Praying
Upon completion of that ritual there was a procession lead by the Monks to the sala that was next to the cremation furnace.  The procession was lead by the Monks holding on to the sai sin (cotton string) that was connected to the coffin.  To the side of the Monks, a man sprinkled popped rice from a woven basket along the processions path - the popped rice was offerings to the spirits along the way.  Immediate family walked behind the Monks with each person holding on to the sai sin.  Other family members followed behind with friends and neighbors behind them and around the coffin.  Many of the people were carrying clothing, personal items, and bedding of the decease person that would be consumed in an open fire next to the cremation furnace.
 After circling  the cremation furnace three times in a counter-clockwise rotation, the simple ordinary consumable closed coffin containing the body was carried up the stairs of the cremation furnace and placed on a bed of lump charcoal located on top of a very heavy wheeled cart at the doors to the furnace.
Monks Leading the Procession
The pualeet were placed at the foot of the stairs leading up to the furnace doors.  The Monks go to the sala and sit down on the raised platform designated for their esteemed position.  Depending upon their relationship or personal choice, the people either sit on the floor of the sala or sit in plastic chairs underneath temporary awning erected specifically for the ceremony.  Government officials and representatives typically sit in the front row of the pavilion closest to the cremation furnace.
Food Offering Placed By Mother at the Head of the Coffin
Part of the merit making ritual at the sala involves making monetary offerings to the Monks in the name of the deceased person.  Typically it involves people being called in accordance to relationship to the deceased and then by social ranking i.e. government officials to go in front of the crowd to collect an envelope of money from the family.  They then walk over to the cremation furnace, walk up the stairs to the closed coffin, wai (bowing motion of the head towards hands raised in praying posture - Thai sign of respect), place the envelope on a tray, wai once again, and go down the stairs to the side of the coffin.  Upon completion of the offerings, the tray is removed and eventually given to the Monks.
Father Making Offering to Local School
During this funeral, the family chose to make offerings to the local elementary school and to the local government for the benefit of the villagers rather than making a big deal about the offerings to the Monks.
Monks Paying Final Respects
After the Abbott (Sr. Monk - Duang's cousin) had accepted offerings from top of the coffin and paid his last respects, people followed lead by the other Monks to say farewell and place good luck totems, daugchan, atop the closed coffin.
Duang Wishes the Spirit Good Luck and Farewell - for now
Schoolgirls In Uniform
For the next step of the ritual, the daugchan were collected and gathered on metal trays.  The top of the coffin was removed.  The daugchan were placed inside of the coffin covering the body.  One of the Monks stood beside the open coffin as if inspecting the situation and supervised the cutting of the bindings around the wrists, knees, and ankles of the body.  He then was the first person to pour coconut water from a freshly tapped coconut over the face and entire length of the body.  The other Monks followed in pouring coconut water on the body.  Family members followed the Monks and the other people who chose to.  Some of the people ended up pouring water out of plastic bottles on the body.
After the last person had paid their final respects, men rolled the body on its side to place halves of coconut shells underneath it.  They also used a heavy cane knife to cut slots in the bottom of the coffin to drain the water.  Diesel fuel was then sprinkled over the charcoal and inside of the coffin
Several men strained to roll the heavy metal cart bearing the coffin into the furnace.  The heavy furnace doors were closed and dogged off.  A small portal in the door was opened and one of the Monks set the charcoal ablaze using a burning daugchan inserted through the portal.
As the fire commenced to blaze inside of the furnace, three large fireworks were set off in succession to drive off any spirits in the area as the smoke billowed from the chimney.  At the same time, handfuls of foil wrapped 1 and 2 Baht coins along with small pieces of packaged candy were thrown from the top of the furnace stairs to the very anxious and enthusiastic throng (all ages) waiting below.  The throwing of the coins and candy signifies the leaving behind the material goods of this world.  It is also considered to be good luck to get the coins and candy for the people waiting.

A while back, I told Duangchan that I would commit suicide rather than endure prolonged suffering or an unacceptable quality of life as well as being a burden to others.  Duang jumped me and told me that I would do no such thing.  She said that I could not kill myself and that she would take care of me.  If she could not take care of me, her son and our grandchildren would take care of me.  I am not sure that she convinced me but I did see how opposed she was to it.

With this suicide, I revisited the subject once again with her.  I noticed and was aware of the people's fear and concern related to "bad pii" (evil spirits) along with the different aspects of the funeral ritual because of the suicide.  However I did not detect any judgmental bias for the man who ended his life.

Buddhism is considered one of the worlds great religions but unlike the other religions it does not have any commandments - any "don't do ...or ..."  Rather Buddhism is more of a philosophy with recommendations on how to achieve a goal of enlightenment (liberation) but it is up to the individual to decide what path they choose to take.  This makes Buddhism a rather "tolerant" religion.  I asked Duang about how people felt about the young man killing himself.  Were they angry?  was he going to "Hell" or not achieve enlightenment for what he did?  She said that people were sad that he was gone.  In talking more with her, I confirmed people's attitude was basically this - "Suicide is not recommended. However, the young man wanted to do it and did it but it was not good for him or his family.  It was up to him.  It will make it longer for him to achieve enlightenment"

Having experienced the devastation on the family, friends, and community that one person's suicide made, I am more inclined not to put my family, friends and community through it.  There are consequences to our actions, I saw some of the consequences of suicide last week and I did not like it.  This was another manifestation of the axiom "There are the ways are supposed to be and then there is the way that they actually are"  It isn't just what you do... do to yourself but what it does to others ... others that you love.

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