Friday, September 23, 2016

What Becomes of Cremains In Isaan

In a person's life there are many questions, some that will never be answered.  They say that there is no such thing as a stupid or even a silly question.  However, some questions have more importance and significance than others.

Fifty-one years ago, in 1965, Jimmy Ruffin, in his hit song "What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted?" wondered about what happened to people who experience a common condition for people of all ages, backgrounds, economic status, and cultures.  I don't know if he ever got an answer or if there is even an answer to what becomes of the broken hearted.  I do know that from the lyrics of the song, he had the proper attitude and an adequate coping mechanism - "I know I've got to find some piece of mind, I'll be searching everywhere, Just to find someone to care"

Here in Isaan, I have attended 18 funeral rituals.  Up until the last funeral ritual, September 10th, my personal experience ceased with the smoke rising from the cremation furnace with all attendees departing the Wat for the family home for some more drinking and eating. It has often crossed my mind as to "What happens to the cremains of the beloved departed?"

Bone Washing Ritual

My next involvement or experience with the departed or more specifically the remains of the departed, was at Songkran when the family would gather together to wash the bones of the dead.  During the bone washing ritual, small bone fragments that are stored in a small container called a ghoat are rinsed with water in a special ritual.

The amount of bones retained by the family is a small amount and does not contain ashes from the cremation of the body.  I knew that the cremation process had to produce more bone fragments than were stored in the ghoats and definitely a significant amount of ash.  I asked Duang about it and she had told me that the other bone fragments and ash were buried on the Wat grounds.

It was not until two weeks ago, that I got to experience as Paul Harvey used to say "the rest of the story"

With the exception of Monks, the bodies of people are typically cremated around 2 or 3 PM.  The next morning starting at 7:00AM the cremains are retrieved by the Monks often with involvement by family members.

Following Duang's advise, I got up at 3:30 AM and arrived at the Wat inside of Thasang Village around 5:00 AM - before the Monks had woken up.  I arrived so early that even the Wat dogs had not woken up yet!  It was pitch black outside so I had to very cautiously walk across the mud from my truck to the concrete landing of the stairs leading up to the bot (ordination hall).  After awhile the Wat dogs woke and sensed my presence.  They were not pleased at all and aggressively let me know as well as the nearby villagers.  Wat dogs do not have a reputation as  bad as their cousins - junkyard dogs but they can be intimidating.  I hurriedly opened the metal gate across the stairway, quickly shut the gate behind me and ascended the stairs to the bot.  From my safe perch on the porch of the bot, I looked down upon the gang of Wat dogs and gave them the evil eye as the sky lightened up in the east with the rising sun obscured by heavy threatening cloud cover.

Around 6:00 AM the Monks arose and upon reassuring the Wat dogs that all was alright in this world, peace and calm returned to the Wat.  I vacated my sanctuary in the bot and joined the Monks at ground level around the crematorium.  I learned that the ritual would commence at 7:00 AM.

Duang arrived with a car full of people - the Monk and her friends from the Wat near our home.  She was shortly joined by her son, daughter and their families as well as family members and friends.

The ritual started with the Abbot of the Wat opening the doors of the furnace and checking things out.  Everything was apparently in good order, so he instructed Duang's son to proceed.  Duang's son used a long metal handled hoe to push the ash and remains through the grating of the heavy metal cremation bed down through the furnace to a couple sheets of recycled corrugated metal at the base of the furnace.

With the help of his sister's boyfriend, Duang's son pulled the cremation carriage out from the interior of the furnace.  With stiff handcrafted brooms and under the supervision of the Abbbott, they brushed ash and dust from the carriage onto the floor of the furnace and then down the natural draft duct to the corrugated metal below.  Ash and dust wafted into the air forcing the young men to occasionally back off to catch their breadths and clear their throats.

Luang Tong Points Out Some Missed Ash

With the carriage and topside of the furnace acceptably clean, the young men and Monks descended the stairs of the furnace, walked around to the base at the backside of the furnace.

Duang's son pulled the sheets of corrugated metal covered with his father's remains from underneath the furnace through the natural draft opening at the back of the furnace.

Using some large freshly fashioned chopsticks cut from some nearby bamboo, the Monks sifted through the ash and still glowing embers of the funeral pyre to recover bone fragments.  Once the Monks had selected and set aside the largest fragments, family and friends took up positions around the corrugated metal to complete the search for bone fragments.

Family Recovering Bone Fragments From Cremains
The recovered bone fragments were placed off to the side on top of a recycled piece of the fine plastic mesh that is placed upon the ground to recover rice kernels during the threshing process.  There were not that many bone fragments and they were all rather small - under 5 to 6 inches long.  Readily identifiable fragments were vertebrae, ulna, radius, ribs, a very small skull patch and a ball joint from a knee, elbow, or ankle.  The collected bones and mesh were formed into a ball and dipped 5 times into a plastic bucket of water.  The five dips signify the moral code of five precepts that Buddhist laypeople take:

     Refrain from harming living things
     Refrain from taking what is not given
     Refrain from sexual misconduct
     Refrain from lying and gossip
     Refrain from taking intoxicating substances

After the bones had been washed they were carefully and reverently placed inside of an ordinary plain clay pot and covered with a white muslin cloth secured with a sacred string (sai sin) wrapped three times around the neck of the pot - three times being symbolic of the three gems of Buddhism - "Buddha", "the Teachings of Buddha", and the Buddhist Religious Community (Sanga).

The pot of bones were then taken and presented to the Monks who were seated in a single line on sahts placed upon the ground off to the side of the assembled family. The bones were presented by an uncle who besides having been a Monk earlier in his life also received additional special training making him a "tapakhao"  Started with the Abbott of the Wat, and then the visiting Monk, Luang Tong, each of the Monks poured water into the pot containing the bones. The act of pouring water in this case was not to cleanse the bones before them.  The act of pouring the water was the act of transference of merit to the departed spirit.

After the last Monk had poured water on the bones, a Brahman performed an offering ritual to the Monks.

The clay pot containing the bone fragments as well as water from the Monks was brought to the area where the family was seated on sahts placed on the ground.  The water was decanted from the clay pot into another container.  A woman selected specific fragments from the pot for placement in a ghoat next to the pot and eventual interment in a tat on the Wat grounds.

Selecting Fragments To Be Stored in the Ghoat
 At this point, the family placed many small yellow candles amongst the ashes and embers remaining on the recycled corrugated metal sheets.  The offering plate from the just concluded ritual with the Monks was also placed on the metal sheets.

Duang's son and some other male family members went off to the edge of the Wat grounds behind the furnace and dug a small hole in the area where deceased people's last possessions are burned as part of the cremation ritual.  The clay pot with bone fragments was placed into the hole followed by the ashes and embers from the metal sheets.  The contents of the offering plate were then placed into the hole followed by the pouring of drinking water from a plastic bottle.  The hole was then filled with dirt.  The ritual was over.

A mystery of the Universe had not been solved but for me, my question of what becomes of cremains here in Isaan had been answered.  As for Jimmy Ruffin's question of what becomes of the broken hearted ... I have been there and done that.  The answer is their life moves on, their life changes, and if they are fortunate, they do find someone who cares along with peace of mind.

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