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A Thai Funeral

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

In my three years in Thailand I was often present at the events that mark transitions in the cycle of life. Some were great fun to attend, some less so. For some reason I found myself present at what, for westerners, is the end of that cycle more often than I expected. For southeast Asian Buddhists, death has a different meaning than it has for westerners. I found that fact reflected in how they marked the end of one's life, and it explained why funerals were not the weepy affairs they are in the west. At the same time, I also found that philosophy and religion don't prevent people from having the same reactions to the death of a loved one that people everywhere have.

The funerals I saw that marked the natural end of a long life could be almost cheerful events, while the ones that marked more tragic ends were less so. The first Thai funeral I attended fell somewhere in the middle. I was having dinner with our new department head, Kath, and some of the teachers I would be working with one day when she said, "Robert, I'm going to the cremation of Somjit's uncle on Sunday, would you like to come along?" Somjit was one of our teachers. Of course I said yes. She explained that on Saturday night they would observe "final night." When someone dies a wake is held for five nights, and family and friends usually attend at least one of the first four nights. The final night before the funeral everyone who can gathers at the house of the deceased or a temple and pays their respects to the dead person. Monks attend and mourners give donations to the monks on that night.

Kath picked me up at about 8:30 Sunday morning. We first went to Somjit's house, a charming Lanna (northern Thai) style wooden house on stilts in a farming village outside Lampang. From there we went to her uncle's house where everyone was gathered for the cremation. In the front yard the coffin sat under an exquisite covering that looked like a Thai temple. Behind that was a paper ship and a crude human figure made of white paper. Kath told me that the ship symbolized his passage into the otherworld and the human figure represented his spirit. But wait-I thought that people were reborn after they died in Thai Buddhist belief? Next to the coffin was a table with a picture of the deceased, flowers, candles, and a bowl of sand with incense sticks. Everyone who entered paid their respects with a wai (a gesture of respect) while holding the incense, which they then planted in the bowl. After paying our respects we walked around the crowd of people. In the back, dozens of people sat under a cover (it was raining) preparing food for the monks and for the feast that would occur around noon. After a short time one monk arrived and walked up the stairs of the house. Somjit invited us to join her upstairs.

Thai coffin and cover (picture)

Thai coffin and cover

I sat on the floor next to her brother. While we were waiting for the service to begin I asked him about the journey to the other world, symbolized by the boat, and how that fit in with rebirth. He explained that when a good person dies he goes to Heaven to spend some time before he is reborn. The amount of time depends upon how many good deeds he did in his life. When people do good deeds they make merit, or "good karma," which can bring about a better future life or entitle a person to time in Heaven. After some time in Heaven the person is reborn. Of course, if someone lives a bad life and makes "bad karma," they are reborn right away and will have bad things happen to them in the next life. If someone lives a very bad life, they spend time in hell. If they keep living bad lives or have one especially awful one, they go to hell to stay. For Buddhists the main goal is to keep attaining merit until they reach the point at which they can become a lifelong monk. Hopefully, as a monk they will be able to give up all worldly desires and, upon their death, escape the cycle of rebirth. Upon their final death they enter Nirvana, eternal life on a spiritual plain in complete happiness. A person in this state is referred to as a Buddha. The Buddha who founded Buddhism 2,500 years ago is normally referred to as "THE Buddha" to distinguish him from the other Buddhas. Most Thai people don't really think about Nirvana when making merit (which often takes the form of giving alms to the monks), as they believe they are not yet worthy of it. It takes many good lives-hundreds of them-to become a Buddha.

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