If there’s anything unavoidable in life, it’ll probably be considered as death and taxes. After all, everybody is going to pass on at some time or other. While death is usually treated as a fairly sombre affair, the Thais tend to treat funerals
as more of a social occasion than anything else.
To be fair, the urban Thais will probably have a funeral held at a convenient and preferably well-known Wat (temple) and most of the people attending the evening prayers and the final cremation ceremony will be those of either family or socially connected to the deceased. There is typically no wake, except for the evening prayers, as most people will continue to go to work. The only indication that there may be something out of the ordinary in their village (usually housing development) would either be the sight of an ambulance in front of the house or a lot of people wearing black.
If, however, this happened in rural Thailand, the whole village attends. It becomes a bit of a social affair, with a wake lasting from three days to a week before the cremation. The wake is usually held at the home of the deceased. The family of the deceased would be expected to provide something to eat – usually several dishes with rice – for the morning meal after prayers, and a single dish – like rice gruel or ‘grapok plaa’ (fish maw soup) to be served after evening prayers. Attendees also expect to be fed. In return, an envelope containing some money will be passed to the bereaved on the day of the actual cremation. Donations are accepted even if you don’t attend.
Noy’s stepfather has been ill for a long time. I’ve seen him shuffling about on occasion; we both acknowledge each other’s presence but he’s never really liked me. Noy doesn’t care. ‘He’s not my real father anyway. He only married my mother.’ Still, she does give him a couple of baht here and there to buy his cigarettes and snacks. He resents this, as he knows where the money is coming from, but his own children don’t give him any. They also leave their children with him if they’re working away from home – doing construction work – and expect him to provide food for the kids on the paltry amount they leave for them. Noy half sneers and exclaims, ‘Yah, they see I now have a farang husband, they think I have a lot of money. So they don’t give enough and expect me to pay the difference.’
I know. There have been knocks on the door from years ago when the kids didn’t have pocket money when going to school. Noy is sometimes too generous. But she also knows I understand. You can’t have the children go hungry, even if they aren’t yours. She has sacrificed a lot for her kids in the past, and knows what hunger is.
His health has been steadily declining; heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure – Noy had mentioned not too long ago that he was having to inject himself with insulin every day. Not that his children cared; after all Noy was there, wasn’t she? When her (their) mother died, we ended up with all the funeral expenses. They didn’t contribute even a single baht. Fortunately Noy had had the foresight to have her mother included in the village insurance scheme, so there would have at least been money to help pay for a funeral. Looking back, it came out to about half of the expenses. The rest came out of our pockets. Fortunately the envelopes received at the funeral did not leave us out of pocket by too much. I wonder if we could have broken even, judging from the pile of envelopes that ended up behind the outhouse in the back, obviously emptied of their stuffing.
Noy is stoic about this. ‘It’s my mother, and the last thing I can do for her is give her a decent funeral. He’s not my father, his children can give him his funeral.’
Easier said than done.
‘He’s in the ICU, we don’t expect he’ll come out of it.’ I’d seen him just two days before, in the small sala opposite the house, playing ‘makruuk’ (a form of Thai chess) with some of the older residents. ‘He’s on a respirator, and from the looks of it he’s half paralysed. We’ve been told to expect the worst.’
Yup. The first thing his kids said was, we don’t have any money. Noy says, no problem, I’ll give you what I get from the village insurance (she had the presence of mind to get this done, as we expected this to happen) and you manage the funeral when it happens.
Well, as it so happened, only Noy and her daughter were at the hospital when he finally passed on, and she was almost ten thousand baht out of pocket by the time the body was brought back home. I got back later the next day to help out. I also found out that I wouldn’t be sleeping in an air-conditioned room, as the tents had been erected next to the house, and the hangings where the monks would be sitting covered the outdoor compressor.
There are many other preparations to be done outside of getting the monks in for prayers and managing an outdoor kitchen. Noy knows I don’t like hanging around doing nothing, and I can’t sit and surf the net the whole day either. I usually do not consume alcohol, so she’ll involve me in some little things. A couple of these things are a bit of a discovery for me.
‘Hop on, we need to go and see the acharn (teacher).’ Noy rides the motorcycle through a labyrinth – they’re just spaces between the houses, and looked like they had only recently been paved over. I’ve never been to this part of the village before. A car would never fit, let alone make it round the first corner. I find out that this visit is to prepare the eulogy. The acharn gives Noy a copy of someone elses’s as an example, and tells her to change the necessary bits. From this I assume he will be reading the eulogy, and am proved correct. He also tells Noy to ‘fill the tank with oil’ (literal translation). I later discover that the acharn also doubles as the crematorium caretaker / operator, and that it has been recently converted to be fuelled by benzine. Fifty liters of it. Not so long ago, most rural crematoriums were fuelled with charcoal, not the cleanest burning form of fuel. Visible black smoke from the tall chimney signalled the close of a funeral back then.
Back home, Noy gets the details for the eulogy. ‘Nok! Come here! Set this up on the word processor and print it out for me.’ Nok is her nephew’s girlfriend. ‘Read it first. Then type it out.’
‘Err, it says here, “he passed away”, why don’t you just write “he died”? Noy glares at her and I hide a quiet smile. It’s not so different where we come from, is it?
It is at ceremonies like these that most of the ‘unseen’ relatives and their families show up. I suppose I should be used to being called ‘loong’ by all the younger generation by now, many of whom I last saw when they were still wearing nappies. They remember me, but I have long forgotten who is who. One of the girls catches my attention. She looks not more that twenty, and I’ll consider her cute. She sees me, smiles and wais. She knows my name. Now it’s not so much the long hair dyed blond, or the not-so-conservative top she’s wearing, but what she’s doing. She’s taking pictures. Nothing wrong with that. Except that I recognise the camera as a top-end DSLR, the cost of which would pay for the funeral almost twice over, and probably still leave some loose change in your pocket.
It’s only later that I spot the tattoo hiding behind her right shoulder.
And a lot later when I find out she’s the daughter of Noy’s half-brother, who ‘doesn’t have any money.’
As part of showing respect for the deceased, the younger male relatives – grandsons and sons-in-law – are expected to become ‘Nen’ – novice monks – just for the cremation ceremony. They usually take the ordination vows in the morning, and are released from the vows after the actual cremation. During this period of time, they are treated exactly as the monks are treated.
Some of them are a little reluctant to part with a full head of hair, but to others it also means that they are expected to sit around for the duration of the ceremony and not lift a finger to help carry things around. It works for some.
Things seemed to be progressing quite smoothly with the monks chanting the final prayers when I heard a small commotion followed with a little nervous laughter. Somchai, one of the sons-in-law, was one of the novice monks. His three-year-old son, who was walking past, saw Dad sitting down, and had noticed his shorn head. Apparently he had run up to his father with a big grin on his face, and had given his father a slap across the back of his head before running off again. A definite no-no if Dad is wearing the saffron robes. I think the nervous laughter was on account that it was fortunate only his father had suffered that indignity and not the monks. His son was very carefully tracked from that moment on.
The cremation went without any other problems. I see familiar faces, the same faces you see at any village ordination ceremony, funeral or wedding. They acknowledge me as I acknowledge them, I’ve been part of this community for years.
Noy is glad it’s over, but has now started focussing on the next thing on her agenda. Her son has a serious girlfriend and she wants to get them married off sooner rather than later.
Welcome to the village social merry-go-round.
I find it a little perturbing the way that money plays such a big part in Thai funerals, something which could be said about many ceremonies in the country.