Tabloids, TV news, and blockbuster movies so savagely saturate the media with graphic depictions of death that I sometimes wonder if we Thais have become desensitized to it. Our society seems equally intrigued and blasé about death. Perhaps we are simply fatalistic, owing to the Buddhist belief in the four stages of Samsara: birth, aging, ailing, and death. But how do we really feel about it? What do we do when death comes?
For many, bidding adieu to the dearly departed is not such a sad affair. We accept that death is a part of life. While wailing relatives and weeping loved ones are a common sight at funerals, we also treat them as opportunities to honour and remember the deceased’s life through sombre yet elaborate ceremonies. We believe that, when the final curtain falls, the journey into the next life should begin with some pomp and circumstance. So it’s important we follow the right rituals.
In Thailand, funereal rites vary depending on religious practice and the status of the deceased. At a royal funeral, an elaborate procession of golden chariots circumnavigates Sanam Luang, the Royal Field, carrying a Buddha image, a monk, and a golden urn. The urn is then placed on a grand crematorium specially built for the occasion. At a Chinese funeral, paper objects are burnt, such as houses, cars, and clothing, all symbolic items the deceased will need in the next life. At a cremation for a high-ranking Buddhist monk, in the Lanna tradition of northern Thailand, the cremation pyre is styled as nok hassadeeling, an elephant-headed bird—in fact, a gigantic elephant-eating bird from myth—which represents a vehicle to Heaven.
At Theravada Buddhist funerals, the most common in Thailand, the process begins with a ceremonial washing. The deceased is bathed in scented water and dressed in his or her favourite attire. Then lustrous water is poured over the right hand to pay respect, make a blessing, or ask forgiveness for past misdeeds. The undertaker ties the corpse’s wrists and ankles with a sacred white thread called sai sinn, connecting the body to the earthly rituals taking place. As a last prayer, the hands are placed together in a wai gesture, clasping a lotus flower and incense sticks. A coin or banknote is set in the mouth for the deceased to spend in the next life, much like the coins given to Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx. Then the body is sealed in a coffin—traditionally filled with son ghlin, or tuberoses, to mask unsavoury smells—and placed on a pedestal, surrounded by floral wreaths. If the deceased is of a high socio-political position, the body will be placed in a large urn called a ghote.
Funeral services usually last an odd number of days: three, five, or seven, depending on the number of hosts (the bereaved, including extended families, friends, and colleagues, are invited to serve as host for a day). Monks chant all the while. Customarily, the body is kept for 50 to 100 days, with wakes each week before the cremation and a merit-making ceremony held at the temple on the 50th or 100th day to mark the anniversary of the death. Although some families may keep the body up to a year, nowadays most cremations take place after seven days.
When the time comes for the cremation, a procession led by monks makes three counter-clockwise turns around the pyre. The family then invites senior guests to give alms of monk robes. Once the bell rings, guests line up to perform a fake lighting of the fire, placing dok mai chan—a little bouquet made from wood shavings or paper, originally sandalwood—under the coffin. These sweet-smelling flowers mix with the ashes when the real cremation occurs. Stemming from an old custom, cremations do not take place on Friday, because the day sounds like the word “happiness” in Thai.
After fire consumes the body, the ashes and remains are collected and brought home. They’re either buried or kept as relics. Most families now take the ashes for loi angkarn, a ceremony adapted from the Hindu practice of scattering ashes in the Ganges. Spreading ashes with flowers into a river or the sea washes away our sins for the very last time. For the family, it is time to let go.
Most Thais stay in mourning for 100 days, wearing black clothing and black crepe over the left sleeve, a custom adopted at the end of 19th century. Siamese used to wear white for mourning and shave their heads if a major royal family member passed. Other acceptable colours were deep purple, midnight blue, and very dark brown, according to one’s relation to the deceased.
So what happens in the afterlife? Does a Heaven or Hell await us? Many believe that if we neglect religious rituals, spirits may linger, becoming ghosts, or what some call sambhawaysee, souls doomed to wander for eternity, unable to enter the next realm. In Buddhism, death ultimately teaches us about the truth: suffering, non-self, and impermanence. Karma is the real key to our legacies. Immortality lies in the good deeds we have done.