Last Saturday, Tawn’s school friend Pim called with the news that her paternal grandfather, who had been ill for about five years, had passed away. While this was sad news for the family, I suspect there was some relief that his suffering has ended. This death also opened a door of opportunity for me, to attend a Thai funeral for the first time.
Pim’s paternal grandfather, Khun Prasit Ourairat, was a very big man. Formerly the governor of the Thailand water utility, he was also the founder of Rangsit University, a large private university in Phatum Thani province, just north of Khrungthep. Because of this, his funeral may have been a bit larger and grander than the average Thai funeral, but Tawn assures me that it was otherwise representative.
I’ll share with you my experience and observations:
Thai funerals are usually seven-day affairs, generally commencing the day after the decedent’s passing. Being a nation that is 95+% Buddhist, almost all funeral services are held at a temple although in some smaller communities the funeral may be held at home.
The family is assigned a sala – pavilion – at the temple and the body, after being washed ceremonially (sprinkling water on the decedent’s hands in a gesture of respect), is placed in a coffin that is more or less your standard box-like affair. Tawn tells me that the washing of the body is the main place where people grieve over the loss of their loved one; it is the time when they first confront the reality of the loss. Flowers, pictures, etc. are displayed around the coffin at one end of the sala, and there is always a Buddha image in the room.
In the case of Khun Prasit, because he held such high status, the Royal Household of His Majesty the King approved the use of a very fancy, octagonal coffin. This is a high honor, indeed, and is not something that common people can use. In this case, his body was not actually placed in the coffin, but was instead in a traditional coffin placed at the back of the flowers with the fancier ceremonial coffin displayed in front. After the ceremony, presumably it will be returned to the Royal Household.
For each of the seven days, a service is held at the fixed time of 7:00 in the evening. Chairs are arranged in the sala for guests – the number varies depending on the size of the building but there were about 120 guests seated inside in the case of Khun Prasit’s funeral. Additionally, the family had tents set up outside and facing the sala to accommodate another two hundred or so guests.
Guests wear black – this is different from many Asian cultures where white is the color worn at funerals as a symbol of purity – and it seems that every Thai man has a black suit set aside just for this occasion.
The sala was overflowing with flowers – perhaps 100 wreaths were displayed, hanging on walls and over doorways. While white flowers made a notable presence, the wreaths were still very colorful and each had a sign expressing condolences from this family or that organization or government department.
As guests arrive, they remove their shoes and enter the sala at the front near the casket and floral displays. The area is carpeted in red and there is a small padded stool. You then pay your respects by sitting on the floor, usually kneeling or sitting with your legs tucked to the side, bowing three times to the Buddha image off to the side of the room – touching your forehead to your fingertips on the ground – and then bowing once to the deceased.
Tawn explains that normally you would light incense, too, but with the large number of guests the amount of smoke would become overwhelming, so in this case no incense was lit.
The service is presided over by four monks – only funerals have four monks; all other services have an odd number of monks – representing the four “can-nots” associated with the death:
Bai mai glab – Cannot return
Lab mai teun – Cannot awaken
Feun mai mii – Cannot regain consciousness
Nii mai phon – Cannot escape
Over the course of about 45 minutes, the monks conduct four rounds of chanting. The chanting is in Pali, the Sanskrit-derived language in which Buddhist texts are written, and each lasts maybe 7-8 minutes. There is a break of a few minutes between each and, Tawn says, usually between the third and fourth round a light snack is served to guests.
During the chanting, guests sit with their hands in a prayer-like position, but often are holding respectfully quiet conversations with each other. During the breaks the volume of chatting increases a bit, but all in all the manner is respectful.
As I mentioned, there are seven days of services. Each day a different person or group of people sponsors the services – a friend of the family, colleagues of the deceased or of his or her spouse or child, or an organization with which the deceased had been associated. In this case, the first three days of mourning were sponsored by His Majesty the King.
At the conclusion of the service, small snack boxes from S&P restaurant were handed out to guests as they departed. Generally, as I mentioned, snacks would be served between the third and fourth rounds of chanting. However, I think since it was a Sunday evening and the temple is on the outskirts of the city, a to-go snack box afforded guests greater convenience.
Pim’s father, whom I’ve met a few times before at family meals, invited Tawn and me to join the family for some noodles and food that had been set up near the sala, but we politely declined as Pim was giving us a ride back into town.
Having only observed one day of the mourning, I think I missed some things about which I’m curious, especially how Thais express their grief. The answer may lie in what happens after the seven days: the cremation service. This is also held at the temple and in many cases does not happen until the 100th day after death. While more and more families are opting to get the cremation over with after the seventh day, the rationale behind the 100 days is that the spirit, when it leaves the body after death, sometimes is confused about where to go and will stay around the body. Waiting 100 days gives the spirit time to find its way.
Additionally, as Tawn explains, the 100 days provides time for the family to let go of their loved one. The body is in a safe place, at the temple, and so they are comforted by the knowledge that their loved one is under the protection of the monks and the Buddha. This gives them time to go through the grieving process before the cremation service, which is the final goodbye.
The service usually draws an extended crowd, not only immediate friends and family. The coffin is carried from the sala around the bot – the main chapel at the temple – three times and then to the cremation sala. There, mourners are given a small candle, a stick of incense, and a wooden flower – these are the “holy trinity” if you will, of Buddhist prayer – and the mourners will throw these into the fire. Doing so, they become part of the fire that sends their loved one to the next life.
After cremation, some people have the ashes interred in a wall or chedi (pagoda) at the temple with a small memorial plaque with their name and picture on it. Other people will have the ashes scattered.