Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Granddaughter's Farewell

Almost two weeks ago, my wife and I attended the funeral of an old man out in the countryside on the border of Changwat Udon Thani and Changwat Sakon Nakhon.  Attending the funeral was not out of morbid curiosity regarding death but rather an acceptance of one's obligations and duties as a member of a large family and an even larger community.

The grandfather of the young Monk from Wat Pha That Nong Mat outside of Tahsang Village had died and on 17 May he was to be cremated.  The young Monk is a close friend to Duang's family and many of the villagers of Tahsang Village.  A group of the villagers were going to attend the cremation to show their respect for both the dead man and his grandson the Monk.  I agreed to go and bring some of the villagers with us.

We first drove approximately 45 minutes south of our home to pick-up my mother-in-law, our grandson Peelawat, and two other older female relatives.  We then drove north for about two hours to Ban Dong Yen.

One lane of the two lane road in front of the dead man's home as blocked off - a typical situation for funerals, weddings, Monk Ordinations, housewarmings, and Bone Parties.  The additional real estate is used for parking and setting up pavilions for guests where they can eat and drink.

Son Carries Part of the Funeral Shrine From House to Pick-Up Truck
At roughly 12:45 PM the refrigerated coffin containing the consumable coffin and the corpse were removed from the home and placed in the back of a pick-up truck for the procession to the local Wat for the cremation ritual.

Family and Friends Load the Coffin On to Pick-Up Truck
I have attended many funerals here in Isaan, many more than I had attended in my previous 60 years in America.  I remember being sheltered as a child from attending funerals.  It was not until I was 17 or 18 years old that I attended a funeral.  Such is not the case here in Isaan.  At the earliest age and more importantly, throughout childhood, children attend and participate in funerals.

Children attend and participate in funerals as full members of the family or community.

I am often reminded of a wonderful quote from National Geographic contributor, Wade Davis, a renowned Canadian Anthropologist.  In his documentary series "Light At the End of the World" regarding the Buddhist attitude towards death ... "The Buddhists spend all their lives getting ready for a moment that we spend most of our lives pretending does not exist, which is the moment of our death". 

In Isaan death is a milestone of life which is familiar to and accepted by all people from a very early age. The conclusion of this life, which for many has been very difficult, presents the hope as well as opportunity for a better and easier life in the future - another step towards eventual enlightenment.

With this blog entry, my 20th related to the funeral rituals of the ethnic Lao Loum people of Isaan, what can be written or photographed that has not been done before?

Each funeral has been very similar but each had some unique aspects.  The different aspects are related to family traditions and the economic reality of the family.  For me, the most interesting aspect of the funerals, was the different people attending and their interaction with each other as well as with the ritual.

So with each funeral that we attend, I look for the special moments, the hidden details, and the personal moments of the event.  There are some standard shots that I end up taking at each funeral but I am always looking for the unique photos that tell a more unique and personal story or photos that better define the culture in regards to death.

This latest funeral was no exception.  There was an aspect to the funeral that I had not witnessed before.  Part of the funeral procession involved ritualized fishing.

Crossing the Bridge Over the River Songkhram, A Man Casts His Net Over the Road
At the front of the funeral procession, there was a man carrying a woven basket filled with popped rice.  Periodically as the procession marched along he would cast handfuls of the popped rice in front of the procession.  This is very typical in funeral processions.  The rice is offerings of nourishment to the local spirits.

However for this funeral, he was joined by three other men with unique responsibilities and duties.  One man walked at the head of the procession carrying a burning homemade taper.  Another man carried a hand fish net - the type used everyday to capture fish.  Another man next to him and often in front of him carried a spiked woven basket that is used to capture fish that are often found in the mud slurry of the rice paddies during planting season.

One end of the woven basket is a larger diameter than the other open end of the basket.  The larger end of the basket has the ribs of the basket exposed about 2 to 3 centimeters past the first hoop of the basket.  When a fish is spotted in the shallow mud slurry of the rice paddy, the larger diameter end of the basket is quickly shoved into the slurry to capture the fish.  The fisherman or more likely, the rice planter who has been interrupted in his work, reaches down through the small end of the basket to retrieve the fish.

I spent most of my time ahead of the procession so that I could photograph it as it approached.  Rather than being a solemn procession as one would expect for a funeral, the front of the procession was quite joyous with a great deal of laughing, joking, and animated conversation.

Several times when throwing the fish net, the "fisherman" fell down - much to his amusement and the amusement of the other men.  I suspect that he was somewhat unstable from drinking the local whiskey all morning long.  On occasion it appeared that he was trying to net the other fisherman who carried the basket.  The road that we traveled on was not heavily used by vehicles but it was very apparent that water buffalo had come along that way.  Upon coming upon a large mound of water buffalo dung in the middle of the road, I cautioned the fishermen not to catch it - much to the amusement of everyone.

So what was going on with the net, basket and burning taper.  I asked Duang and she told me something along the lines of :  the men did not want to think about dying. they did not want the spirit of the deceased man to be sad so they were making believe that it was nighttime and they were all happy because they were fishing together.

After crossing the bridge over the Songkhram River we found ourselves in Changwat Sakon Nakhon and in the village of Khok Si.  The procession took a left turn down a narrow village road on its way to the Wat.

By this time, the men at the head of the procession had been joined by some of the children.  One of the aspects of life here that I particularly enjoy, is observing the confidence, self-reliance, self assurance and independence of the children. The children, at least one of them, a granddaughter were not timid or shy at the turn of events that they found themselves in.

I ended up taking several photographs throughout the cremation ritual of one granddaughter.  Her demeanor and demonstration of respect for her departed grandfather was inspiring and fit very well with the message that I intended to make about an aspect of life here.  "Life" here in a blog about a funeral ... death?  How can that be?  It actually is quite logical from the Buddhist standpoint.  Death frees us from this life and until we attain enlightenment, frees us to be born again.  So for Buddhists there can be no life without first having death.

Requesting Permission For the Procession to Enter the Wat Grounds

When the front of the procession arrived at the gate to the Wat, we could not enter.  The men at the front of the procession knelt before a Monk and talked for awhile.  They then seemed to ask permission as the truck carrying the coffin caught up to the group.  Perhaps as a symbol for the transition of the procession to a more serious mode, the man with the fishing net finally captured the other fisherman that had the basket to the delight of everyone - right in front of the gate to the Wat.

Personal Possessions and Prosthesis to be Burned As Part of Funeral Ritual

The procession entered into the Wat's extensive grounds at a side entrance at the back of the property. The crematorium was located very close to the entrance.

The coffin containing the corpse was removed from the refrigerated coffin and placed on two metal sawhorses at grade level in front of the crematorium rather than at the door to the furnace as in all previous cremations that I have attended.

A cardboard box of the deceased man's personal effects and his  two prosthesis were placed in a fire pit off to the side of the crematorium.  The man had both of his legs amputated due to the effect of diabetes.  Although obesity is not an issue in this area, and the people's diet is far removed from Western diet, diabetes is very prevalent here.  I suspect that it is perhaps due to genetics or possibly a virus.  As is typical in the cremation ritual, once the flames commence to consume the corpse, the personal possessions are burned.

A Granddaughter Watches As Her Grandfather Is Bathed in Coconut Water

The cover of the consumable coffin was removed to expose the corpse.  Monks and people came forward to pour coconut water straight from coconuts on the corpse.  Others poured water from bamboo stalk containers.  The granddaughter who had caught my attention showed no fear or revulsion.  She seemed more curious and remorseful over what she was witnessing.

 The young girl joined her parents following the coffin up the stairs of the crematorium for it to be placed upon a bed of charcoal on a heavy metal carriage.

The little girl remained alone at the doorway to the furnace as the doors were closed and the charcoal was ignited - a fitting and poignant tribute to the grandfather that she obviously loved.

People Scramble to Catch Candies and Coins Cast From the Raised Floor of the Crematorium

So it is ... life and death here in Isaan.  Life and death are embraced at an early age.

Children are integrated into their culture and society to prepare them for their future days ... in this lifetime as well as the others to come.

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