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Rituals and traditions at a funeral in #Thailand. The #culture explained with over 60 photos.

31/01/2015

Paying respect at an upper class funeral in northern Thailand.

300,000 mourners and over 30 monks in 8 days of funeral rites culminating in the final goodbye on Thursday at the crematorium. Pictures are in sequence.

Although it was the funeral of a rich Thai, the extended family (the deceased had ten children) included people from all walks of life: rice farmers, taxi drivers, government officials, and those with no permanent work. As well as the more prosperous members of the family, which traces its origins back to the founders of Thailand’s biggest newspaper group, less well-off members attended with friends and neighbours in the local community. But all mingling and talking together because of their family and community links.

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One of the wreaths, from a family related to the King. It has first place among all the others from local and national institutions and businesses. Many people in high places attended the funeral as well as people from surrounding villages. One 97 year old family member, in perfect physical health but with Alzheimer’s, was present. In Thailand the whole family comes together at times like this. It makes for keeping in touch and family cohesion.

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The friends and neighbours helped in the catering too. Quite a task given the number of people attending today and over the last few days. Meals were provided from morning to lunch each day.

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The monks eat upstairs away from the lay mourners and can’t eat after midday. The rites start after the meal. They will sit cross-legged during the ceremony.

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Funerals are simpler in Bangkok. Here, in the North the coffin is placed on a “castle or palace” like catafalque symbolising the future home of the deceased.

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The white thread, shown below, links the coffin, the houses in this family complex, and the monks and mourners seating area. The sai sin connects them all together during the rites that will take place. The monks hold the sai sin during the solemn part of the ceremony.

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Three of the deceased’s great grandchildren became monks on the day of death and will continue as naen, young monks, until three days after the cremation. They sit behind the adult monks but you still wai them as if they are full monks. Their participation in the rites is seen as giving them merit which they transfer to their great grandfather.

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Mourners give a donation in an envelope (usually an airmail envelope) when they arrive and take a small gift from the bowls alongside. It is seen as making merit for themselves. They put their names on the envelope. It anyway helps towards the cost of the funeral, 300,000 baht, of which about 80,000 baht is donated to the monks.

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Apart from when the monks are chanting, there is much gossiping and talking going on. I’ve seen politicians handing out election leaflets at funerals and lottery sellers routinely visit and circulate among those present. Thais love a gamble and believe in trying all means of getting good luck. They’ll pick what they see as an auspicious number. Much deliberation goes into their selection.

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On the first day of this funeral, armed soldiers were called in as there were too many sellers and they were becoming a nuisance. They were chased at gunpoint into the surrounding rice fields. I naively asked why the police were not called but quickly realised that it was because the police are notoriously involved in taking back-handers from the sellers for allowing them to operate. The military government has said it will stop all corruption of this type. That won’t happen of course, corruption is endemic and almost a cultural trait with the Thais, but the present unelected government has already made positive steps to minimise it. A fact of which the ordinary Thai is aware but the foreign media has failed to see.

The monks are now seated and the rites are about to begin. They have come from several wats, some as far as 40 kilometres away. The most senior monk is on the far left and the man in the white shirt is a village elder who will lead the congregation in the ceremony. More photos of this and explanations later.

The three naen (young monks), who became monks on the day of their great grandfather’s death and will remain in the monkhood for three more days as an act of merit, are seated at the top right of the picture- behind the full monks.

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Lighting the candles

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Making an offering

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The village elder leading the opening chants. He will be followed by the head monk (luang paw in Thai). Later all the monks will join in.

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The most senior monk, Luang paw, leads the prayers and chanting

 

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The youngest member of the family

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Offering incense sticks to the monks, placed on top of the gifts of merit already placed in front of them.

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With shoes off and making a wai, a family member offers incense at the coffin.

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Formally passing the gifts laid out before them to the monks, the closest family members first.

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Lay people taking the gifts back to the monks’ cars.

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Starting to pull the catafalque, family nearest the coffin.

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The cortège starts to move off.

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The monks always head the procession, they are taking the deceased to the final rites. The really heavy pulling has been done by those behind them. Their pulling is largely symbolic.

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The wreaths and photo of the great grandfather. Traditionally, the younger members of the family take this role.

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More photos of the cortège on the way to the crematorium. A distance of about 2 kilometers.

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It was getting hot with the sun’s rays beating down on the procession. In Thailand, umbrellas are often used more as protection from the sun than the rain.

 

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The “spire” of the castle or palace catafalque is two metres high. Electricity supply wires have to be raised to allow it through and sometimes the spire must be pulled down with a white string to allow the main structure to pass under.

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At the crematorium incense sticks were given to all the mourners. As they approach the casket they wai and lay them on an ornamental tray which will be placed in the coffin before the burn. In some communities each mourner throws the stick directly onto the flames.

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Before releasing two large balloons into the skies they are filled by fanning air into them. Gas is then inserted and a flame torch is used to ignite them. You can see the wide diameter gun being inserted into the base of the balloon. Once airborne the balloons emit loud fireworks to scare off evil spirits.

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Ready for release.

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Once the balloons fly into the distance the next stage of the ceremony begins. A yellow band is laid on a table with one end attached to the coffin. All those present are given a numbered card. 1 and 2 for close family, 3 and 4 for extended family, 5 for civic leaders, and so on. Mourners are called up in groups. You can imagine that, with several hundred people, that sort of organisation is essential. Each person is then given a new monk’s robe to lay on the table as an act of merit. The significance of the yellow saffron band attached to the coffin is that it shows that this merit is being transferred to the deceased.

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Each person receives the robe from the family, makes a wai when it is received, lays the robe on the band of cloth, wais again, and then returns to his or her seat.

You notice she has taken off her shoes before placing the robe on the saffron band. Actually, few people did that.

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Whenever the table is full, a group of monks comes to receive the merit gifts and offers a prayer of thanks before returning to the sala (shown in the background).

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Preparing the last set of fireworks which will be let off as the body is being cremated.

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Here we see the monks putting the flowers they were given on a tray. It will be taken to the crematorium oven and placed on the body before burning.

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Moving the coffin to the crematorium. The immediate family will have viewed the body out of sight of all those present. In many funerals a queue forms and all mourners sprinkle holy water on the body as they say their last goodbyes. That did not happen here.

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After the coffin is placed in the oven the lid is removed and taken to the open funeral pyre. The castle structure, now without the coffin, is laid on it and set alight.

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Other families, particularly if poorer, still use an open pyre for cremations. Some aristocratic families still use that method. This family did not.

The flames are now really taking hold.

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The family wai the mourners after all those present have placed their incense sticks on the tray in front of the coffin.

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By tradition, nobody looks back at the still burning pyre. Superstition states that to do so will allow evil spirits to follow you home.

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2 Comments
  1. Matt Owens Rees permalink

    Reblogged this on Matt.Owens.Rees; Thailand Writer and commented:

    One of my Friday blog posts

    Like

  2. Matt Owens Rees permalink

    Comments and photos of less lavish funerals welcome.

    Like

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