Funeral Rites: Attending a cremation ceremony in rural Thailand
The wooden coffin had been placed inside a metal sarcophagus and covered with iridescent paper to seal in the stench of putrefaction. Bouquets of plastic flowers crowned and surrounded the coffin. On the left-hand side was a photograph of the deceased woman on a gilded stand strung with blinking fairy lights. After three days of mourning rites, the body would be burned so her ghost would not loiter on this plane of existence.
As soon as a mourner entered the big wooden sala—near the temple in this Thai village of 100 people close to the Cambodian border—they lit one stick of incense and knelt down in front of the altar, praying for Noobin (the deceased) to have a safe journey to heaven and a good rebirth. The nine monks who came to chant each morning and evening offered the same blessings.
Aside from the chanting, it was not a solemn occasion. More like an Irish wake, actually. Groups of family members and friends sat on the floor eating and chatting. Some of the men drank beer; others knocked back shots of rice liquor that tasted like pickled razor blades. Behind the scenes, the women cooked and served food.
At night, men knelt behind the curtain that separated the big room with the coffin and Buddha images from the kitchen, to put down wagers on a simplified version of roulette, using a cardboard grid on the floor. Right beside them, an older relative, the family’s loveable rogue, taught a gaggle of kids how to play the same game with one-baht coins he provided—and won back from them. The dead woman’s younger sister, Noopat, told me that gambling is common at rural funerals; it helps to distract people from their grief and the fear of a possible haunting.
At some memorial services in the countryside, poor families auction off the gambling rights to local mobsters, who agree to pay for the funeral ceremony. A good send-off, which gives ‘face’ to the deceased’s family, requires an investment of at least 20,000-30,000 baht. For many rural families, that’s a crippling debt.
I’d never met the deceased, but she was the older sister of a friend’s wife. Myself and Cameron Cooper—Noopat’s husband and the man who co-founded the now defunct Farang Untamed Travel magazine with me many years ago—were the only two farang (Westerners) there, and stories of the dead woman’s life leaked to us through the Thai-English language filter.
She was a hard-worker who arose every morning at 4am to hitch a ride into the frontier town of Aranyaprathet to sell vegetables in the market. Afterwards, she returned home to make fried bananas or sticky rice in bamboo tubes to sell in the village. When her mother died young, she weaned her baby sister, Noopat, and her own infant son at the same time, each child suckling a different breast.
Noobin moved to the northeastern province of Loei where she and her husband tended cornfields, but came back to the village to nurse her father when he was dying. Years later, her own misdiagnosed case of angina, which could have been treated with the right medicine and enough money, led to a massive stroke that left her body and mind mostly intact, but her vocal cords could only transmit whimpers in place of words. Sometimes she’d get angry and start crying when people couldn’t understand her. Eventually, the untreated case of angina made her heart swell up to five times its normal size. Doctors gave her a year at most to live, but with incredible tenacity she hung on for three years. Liver failure turned her skin a yellowish-green tint and finally claimed her life. At the end she suffered such fits of agony that death came as a tender mercy.
Sitting on the floor, drinking and listening to all these stories, I kept stealing glances over at her husband of some 30 years. For hours he’d been staring at the coffin and his wife’s portrait, sitting there on a dais by the Buddha images, where the monks had chanted earlier. The husband, whose face had taken on the same scorched and barren look of the province’s soil, must have been overwhelmed by the same memories everyone else was recollecting—except he had thousands more of them to sift through and sort out. We thought about walking over and offering him a drink and some condolences, but bereavement is the most private of duties, and condolences are clichés that console no one.
By Jim Algie