Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Preparations for an Isaan Funeral

The day after we attended the funeral for the young man from the village next to Tahsang Village, one of Duang's best friends, a cousin, died.  She and Duang had worked together in the garment factory in Brunei about ten years ago.  The woman was also from Duang's home village of Tahsang Village.

The woman was 41 years old and died of breast cancer.  A double mastectomy and chemo had extended her life by just three years.  The woman was recently hospitalized and was fully aware that her death was imminent.  Duang was helping her to locate the father of her cousin's 8 year old daughter so that her cousin could ask him to be sure to take care of their daughter. There were some rumors that he had died but that did not deter my wife's detective efforts. Duang was able to track him down, spoke with him.  He said that he would come and visit but never did.  He did not attend the funeral either.  Fortunately the young girl has a 19 year old half-sister and an aunt in Tahsang Village who will take care of her.

The following day, Duang went out to the village to help with the preparations for the cremation ritual and to participate in the rituals leading up to the cremation.  I did not go the first day after the death because I had my second dental appointment here in town for my root canal.  I did go to Tahsang Village the second day of preparations - the day before the cremation ritual.

Since the woman had died of natural causes, her remains were located within the family home across the street from Tahsng Village's "Inside Wat" - the Wat inside of the village as opposed to the outside wat, Wat Pha That Nong Mat, located in the cane fields outside of the village.

The refrigerated coffin containing the consumable coffin and body was located in the center of the main downstairs room of the house.  The refrigerated coffin was covered and flanked with large floral arrangements of fresh flowers. The ubiquitous pualeets were above and to the side of the coffins.

Since the deceased person was a family member and good friend of Duang's, we donated a floor fan to be offered to the Monks in the name of the deceased as well as our names ... our a reasonable facsimile of our names.  Duang had gone into the nearby town of Kumphawapi to take care of some errands for the family as well as to buy our pualeet.

Lost In Translation?

This being Thailand, it was not a simple matter of hanging a custom printed manner on a fan and placing it in front of the coffin.  The floor fan was highly decorated with artificial flowers and crinoline fabric - sort of like a 1950's or early 1960's prom dress. The custom banner immediately caught my attention - "... ALLN..." .  I recognized the Thai spelling of "Hale" and I thought that the vendor had printed by name the way he heard it.  Later when I asked Duang about it, the truth came out.  The man did not know how to write my name in English and asked Duang to spell it for him.  She does not have much opportunity to practice her English writing skills and in the emotional stress of the day she forgot about the "E".  We enjoyed a good laugh together especially when I pointed out that I have no idea how to spell her name in Thai.

Tonight I asked Duang what the Thai writing above our names on the banner said.  She said "Good Luck to you.  We love you.  Now you will not be sick anymore. We will miss you. You go up now.  You will be born again -good for you,  Don't complain"  - apparently Thai is a very powerful language - not requiring too many words to express a great deal.  Perhaps I have missed something in that translation.

Off to the left of the coffin, men were sitting, eating and drinking - for some - a great deal of drinking.  Lao Lao is a very powerful whiskey - Lao answer to moonshine.  The woman's brother and an older cousin were in and out of consciousness - the effects of three days of drinking and not much sleep.  The family maintains a continuous vigil in front of the coffin until it is removed from the home to go to the local Wat for cremation.  Upon arrival, I was immediately called over to join the men.  I politely refused to join them in drinking Lao Lao but did start drinking strawberry soda.

Whenever the older cousin became an annoyance, family members, male and female, would grab his arm and lead him outside.  He would stumble outside only to return a short time later to start the process all over once again.

Processing Funeral Notices
On the other side of the room, several women, one young man along with the two daughters were occupied with processing funeral notices.  As part of preparations for cremation ritual, funeral notices are distributed to family, friends, and neighbors informing them of the details for ceremony along with a vehicle for making offerings.  The notices are pre-formatted and only the specific details are added when they are printed locally.

Cremation Ritual Notice
Once the notices are printed, they have to folded, inserted in their associated envelope and the name of the recipient added by ball point pen to the front of the envelope.  Duang took a bunch of completed notices and hand delivered them to the local villages.  It is always impressive to see the family, friends, and neighbors coming together to prepare for cremations.

Butchering and Preparing Meat
In the small side room, a typical Isaan kitchen (food prep area) off from the main room of the home, men and women were busy butchering pigs and cattle to feed the people.  For events such as funerals here in Isaan people purchase pigs and cattle to serve.

Purchasing a pig does not involve going to a western style grocery store or hypermarket and purchasing certain number of kilograms of pork chops, certain kilograms of ground pork, certain kilograms of ribs and so on.  Here in Isaan, when you buy a pig, you get it from a local farmer and you bring home a pig's head and the two sides associated with the pig and everything in between.  However when you buy beef you buy just a hind leg from a local farmer.

Once at either the food prep area of the home or the Wat, the meat is cut and prepared.  Much of the meat is chopped using heavy sugarcane knives to produce a paste.  Other pieces and parts are thrown into large kettles of boiling water with other ingredients to make soups.  Other pieces are cooked over wood coals to feed the people, which can be up to 50 or more, preparing food, maintaining the vigil, and participating in other preparations and activities.  A family and community truly comes together at this time.


There is no gambling in Thailand other than the National Lottery.  However prior to the latest military coup here, "arrangements" were possible with local law enforcement to have games of chance during the two to three days of the funeral ritual at the home of the deceased person.  When the military took over previous "arrangements" were not possible any more.  Well things seem to be going back to "normal" once again.

Outside of the home but still on the property, there were two games of "High-Low" going on the entire day and I am told all night.  Gambling is an incentive and a method for people to maintain the death vigil until the body is cremated.  People must remain awake for the vigil.  This is good for the spirit of the dead person.  The gamblers also believe that gambling as part of the funeral ritual is good luck for them.  I haven't figured out how that works - some of them must lose for others to win - but then again I do not believe in gambling.

I occupied myself observing the events, the interaction of the people, and taking photographs.  I was getting ready to pack up my gear to return to our home when some family members arrived - two babies - 9 months old.  I ended up spending over an hour more playing with the and taking their photographs.

Getting to Know Each Other
One of the babies did not crawl but she was far from immobile.  She would sit perfectly straight and forcibly thrust her abdomen forward to move to where she wanted to go.  She was quite efficient and proficient in getting around.  No matter how many times that I showed her how to crawl, she ignored me.

I eventually gave up and we worked on playing - sharing, - sharing an offering plate.  Neither baby would share but one would let me touch the plate in her hand.

Exploring their world
The irony of these two young beings embarking upon their lives associated with the ending of another life.  It was, for me, a manifestation of the Chinese philosophy of the Yin-Yang.  It was a reminder that life goes on and that there should always be hope along with the promise of tomorrow.

For Buddhists, there is the comfort that there is the opportunity to do better the next time until liberation is finally attained.

Life is full of lessons if we just look.

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