Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Monk's Cremation

Wan Tong Veeboonkul
Buddhists do not believe in a permanent and fixed reality.  To them everything in this world is subject to change as well as alteration.  Impermanence and change are truths in our existence according to Buddhism.

In Buddhism, impermanence is described in four phrases:

Whatever is stored up is bound to run out.

Whatever rises up is bound to fall down.

Whatever come together is bound to fall apart.

Whatever is born is impermanent and is bound to die.

Everyday, if we look or choose to be aware there are examples as well as affirmations of the four phrases regarding impermanence.  However, it is the death of someone that we know that strongly drives into our reality the truth of the fourth phrase  "Whatever is born is impermanent and is bound to die".

A week ago, one of Duang's cousins died.  Wan Tong Veeboonkul was 72 years old.  We last saw him at a funeral in Thasang Village on October 14th.

Wan Tong Veeboonkul - far right side of this photo
Wan Tong had been a Theravada Buddhist Monk for five years.  He had become a Monk after the death of his wife.  As is very common her in Thailand, many men after the death of their wife and their children leaving to start their own families, will "take refuge" in the Triple Gem (Three Jewels) of Buddhism - the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of Buddha), and the Sangha (the Buddhist religious community of Monks and Nuns).

Duang's cousin had four daughters and one son who lived near him in Ban Nong Daeng near Duang's home village in Nongwa Subdistrict.

He had not been feeling well for a while - Duang said that his insides were no good.  Last week he went out for a walk and had a heart attack.  Typically when someone dies of natural causes they are cremated three days after their death.  In cases of violent deaths such as accidents or suicides, the person is cremated sooner because the spirits are unsettled by the death - in those cases the body is cremated one or two days later.  However Duang's cousin was a Monk which is an entirely different protocol.

Monks are considered and treated as a higher class of people than typical people here in Thailand.  Their social status is due to Monks being closer to liberation ("Enlightenment") than average people or even wealthy people.

I have attended over 15 funerals in six years, however this was the first cremation ritual for a monk.  To paraphrase an expression that Duang often uses when I point out something in America or Thailand that Is different from each other - "Funeral for Buddha (Monk) not same for other people"

The first difference is that a Monk is not cremated until 7 days after his death.  Secondly whereas all the cremations that I have attended were around 1:00 PM, the cremation for Monks does not start until after sundown.  Our sunset now is around 5:30 PM so yesterday's ritual did not start until 7:00 P.M. The ritual for the Monk lasted two hours whereas typical cremations that I have attended lasted around one hour.

The ritual for laypeople starts at their home with a procession to the local Wat for the final aspects of the ritual.  The Monk was kept at the Wat where he lived.

Entrance to Wat Udom Nong Daeng

Oh - the biggest difference was Monks are cremated on a funeral pyre on the Wat's grounds and not in the Wat's crematory furnace.  When I arrived yesterday afternoon for the evenings ritual, the Monk was already positioned on top of the funeral pyre.

Funeral Pyre for Wan Tong Veeboonkul
A small ornate pavilion had been erected around the funeral pyre. The pavilion was constructed from four concrete piles placed in the ground to serve as support columns.  The concrete columns served as support elements for horizontal bamboo members that in turn served as attachment points for long thin bamboo members to form a dome above the funeral pyre.

The dome framework was covered with a fine white fabric that very well could have been mosquito netting. The base of the dome was circled by a ring of  homemade ornate consumable panels - thin Styrofoam boards covered with a solid colored foil with an overlay of a different colored foil cut by hand into intricate designs.  I have watched this type of decoration being produced before but on a much smaller scale for "spirit houses" (basahts) used in Tambon Nong Roy Wan parties (Bone Party).

Ornate thin colored cloth panels, reminiscent of delicate summer curtains from my youth in New England were suspended from the dome ring and gathered at their end near the ground to form triangles along the circumference of the funeral pyre.  There was a low wall type structure created from horizontal bamboo poles and fabric covered thin Styrofoam panels.  Two openings at opposite ends of the structure allowed access to the pyre.  Leaning up against the outside  four low walls were many funeral memorial placards readily available for all funerals.  The placards often contain clocks, fans, giant ornamental watches, and sometimes kitchen utensils along with artificial flowers, garlands and custom printed banners of best wishes for the deceased along with the name of the donor.

Underneath the dome, a refrigerated coffin was resting upon a bed of logs.  The bed of logs was comprised of two layers of 9" to 12" diameter hardwood logs perpendicular to each other.  Inside of the refrigerated coffin was the typical consumable coffin containing the corpse.

Outside of the entrance closest to the pavilions where people sat to view the ritual where tables with talisman called daughans that would be placed on top of the consumable coffin by mourners before coconut water is poured on the corpse by Monks, dignitaries and family members.  Men remove the daugchans from the lid of the consumable coffin and place them inside of the coffin before the pouring of the coconut water.

Mourners Carrying Monk Robes Offerings Three Times Clockwise Around Pyre
A very important aspect of the ritual is to earn merit for one-self as well as for the spirit of the deceased person.  Merit is typically earned at funerals by offering robes to the Monks by dignitaries and immediate family members. The people earn merit for themselves and the deceased person by carrying the robe up to the coffin and placing the robe on a ordinary metal serving platter on the coffin at the entrance to the furnace.  The Senior Monk accepts the first offering followed by Monks in descending seniority until all the robes are distributed.  Typically at funerals there are 2 to 5 offerings made.  For the ritual associated with the Monk's cremation, ordinary laypeople made a cash offering in a collection box at one of the tables off to the side of the pyre.  They then took a packaged robe and carefully carried it three times clockwise around the pyre.  It seemed to me that unlike a typical funeral there was no announcing of who gave what for cash offerings.  Unlike typical funerals, poor people who could not offer cash did not offer small bags of rice.  It appeared to me that you offered what you could at this ritual and you got to walk around with the robe.  After people completed their circumambulation of the pyre, the robes were returned to the white cloth covered folding table to be used by other mourners.

At most cremation rituals there are 6 to 14 Monks in attendance.  However for the ritual involving a Monk there was about 34 Monks participating.

At 7:00 PM the ritual commenced.  The start was initiated by the ringing of a bell - sounded like the ringing of a steam locomotive bell.

A senior education official did the "Master of Ceremony" duty - announcing and keeping things organized in accordance to the supervision of another one of Duang's cousins - an Abbott at another local Wat.  Both the education official and Duang's cousin are common participants at the local funerals.

The Start of the Ritual - School Official Shows Sign of Respect for the Deceased
A big difference in this ritual as opposed to a typical funeral was the offering of robes to the Monks.  Besides the sheer number of robes that were offered, there was a different way to offer them.  A dignitary or family member would be called, go up to the table of robes, take a robe on a gold colored pressed metal ornate raided bowl, and carry it to the area just inside of the pyre area.  Once the person had place the bowl with the robe on a table next to the coffin. a Monk would walk barefoot about 20 meters from their pavilion to accept the offering.  Each Monk said a chant before accepting the offering.

As part of the ritual. laymen removed the refrigerated coffin from the pyre and set it off to the side.

After the coconut water had been poured over the corpse and the daugchans placed inside of the consumable coffin, laymen punctured the bottom of the coffin to drain away the liquids in the coffin and to facilitate the cremation of the corpse.  They then placed additional long logs that had been stored off to the side of the funeral structure.  The logs were placed to form a large and dense teepee around the consumable coffin. The pyre was then doused with naphtha rather than the typical diesel fuel to start the fire.

As a Monk entered the funeral structure with a candle and started the pyre fire, fireworks were launched into the black sky.  Typically three are launched to scare away any malevolent spirits that might interfere with the release of the deceased person's spirit.  For the Monk's ritual there were several fireworks shot into the sky - it was difficult to count because each firework had several secondary explosions once it got up to elevation.  I was busy taking photos but I would estimate roughly 24 explosions and colorful bursts.

Like all funeral rituals, the symbolism of turning away from the materialism of this world, candies and foiled wrapped coins were tossed to the eagerly awaiting crowd - especially the children.

The cremation ritual last night took two hours to complete.  Typical funeral rituals take one hour once the coffin arrives at the local Wat.

Whatever is born is impermanent and is bound to die.

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