Thoughts on Two Funerals
I think it’s safe to say that a funeral isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time. Death may be an inevitable part of our existence, but people don’t especially enjoy being reminded of their mortality. Seeing a casket being lowered into the ground, or consigned to a pyre doesn’t exactly make me want to go out and dance a jig. I know all too well that my expiration date will be here waaaay too soon, and I can honestly say that I’m not overly thrilled at the thought. Oh well, I may be getting older, but I intend to pack as much as I can into what time I have left on Earth. No quietly going into the night for old Sawadee!
Considering the large number of Thai friends I’ve made over the years, it was inevitable that I would be asked to attend a funeral. This week there were two funerals. One I was honored to be a part of. As for the other, let’s just say for the moment that no power on earth can make me attend that affair.
My wife got the call early Monday morning. She in turn promptly called me with the sad news. Our dear friend Bpaa-ya’s husband had just died, so be prepared to attend a funeral on Sunday. In truth, I didn’t know the fellow all that well, although I have known his wife and her two sisters for years. What I remember is a quiet, frail looking man, who enjoyed fussing over our little boy. I’m not sure exactly what he did before retirement, but I know that he was a high ranking official in the government. Bpaa-ya was a former director of one of the top schools in Lampang, and it was she who got me my first job teaching here. She was also with my wife in the ambulance that took me up to Chiang Mai Ram hospital during my first cardiac misadventure. Actually, she was the one who got me the hell out of the government hospital where I was busy waiting for the Grim Reaper, and got me into an ICU in a private hospital prior to that ambulance ride. Needless to say, we have remained good friends.
Although I had read some things about Thai funeral customs, in truth I didn’t really know what was expected of me. I certainly wanted to act in a proper, respectful manner. When it comes to matters of Thai etiquette, I defer to my wife, although growing up as a dirt poor farmer’s daughter; she’s never had a whole lot of practical experience in many social situations. Her family is not exactly one that Miss Manners would use as a shining illustration of proper behavior. Still, my wife is a pretty smart cookie, and has managed to keep me from committing any egregious faux-pas in the past. I think that I will continue to follow her lead.
After calling to give our condolences, the next order of business was to have a floral wreath made, and bring it to the temple. During the next week, friends and family would be coming by every evening for prayers. Having your wreath on display is considered a sign of respect. The shops that make these floral tributes do a thriving business. Thais give them not only for funerals, but for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, retirement, and any other event in which you want to wish congratulations. Along with a wreath, an envelope with a financial offering was required. If this funeral had been down in Buriram, a typical offering might be 20 baht. On this occasion, my wife felt 1000 baht was appropriate. I didn’t argue about the amount. Thais make a big deal about who donates what. I knew that a written tally would be kept, and I definitely didn’t want to seen as being khee niaao (stingy).
Because we had three year old Sam to deal with, we only attended prayers one evening. I thought we would be seated inconspicuously in the back, but no, as the Farang, I had to sit up in the front row. At least we were seated in chairs. At this point, old Sawadee has trouble sitting or kneeling on the floor. Several hundred people were in attendance that evening, and represented the upper strata of Lampang society. I’m not talking about being necessarily wealthy, although everyone seemed was clearly middle class. These folks were well educated professionals, who included doctors, lawyers, educators and engineers.
Before prayers began my wife and me placed candles and incense near the casket. Actually casket may not be the correct word to use. Although decorated and covered with flowers, this “box” was basically a refrigerator. Considering Thailand’s climate, this is obviously a necessity.
Eventually a group of monks came in and chanted Buddhist prayers for an hour. There is something about the Pali language in which prayers are recited which I find soothing. Back in my younger days, I spent quite a few hours listening to Vedic pundits recite hymns from the Rig Veda. Hearing Sanskrit being chanted had a similar effect on me. I wonder how many Thais actually understand the meaning of their prayers.
On Sunday afternoon, I put on my best black shirt…actually my only black shirt and got ready for the funeral. I picked up this shirt last year when the Princess Galyani passed away. The Thais, if nothing else, are an enterprising lot. Overnight, black clothes were on every shop rack.
Thai funerals are held at special temples which have crematoriums. I had no idea what to expect. My wife wasn’t a fountain of information, being on unfamiliar ground herself. The casket arrived on the back of a truck, accompanied by a kind of honor guard, dressed in white uniforms. Thais of course are big on uniforms. There were a lot of men and women working for the government wearing “dress whites” that day. The casket was then ceremoniously laid to rest on the dais, in front of a set of gold curtains.
Once again my wife and I were seated in a section reserved for VIPs, and I was told that I would have a role in the proceedings. Great! Here is a wonderful opportunity to humiliate myself in front of everyone. Oh well, I’d just have to put on a dignified face and try not to trip over my own two feet. Luckily, all I had to do was present saffron robes to the assembled monks. After the monks were done with their prayers, I stepped forward and, taking robes from a golden colored tray set each one in front of a seated monk. It didn’t take long, so thankfully I was finally able to collapse back on my chair in blessed relief.
At the end of the ceremony, the curtains behind the casket were opened, to reveal the crematorium ovens.
For a dreadful moment I thought they were going to fire this infernal device up on the spot, and I was going to have to witness a human body going up in smoke and flames. I needn’t have worried. The actual cremation would be for family members only, for which I was truly grateful. A few months ago, a good American friend of mine in Lampang witnessed the cremation of his father-in-law. Apparently it was not for the faint hearted.
My wife and I joined a line of people to express final condolences to Bpaa-ya and her family, and then we were on our way home, none the worse for the experience. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for my second encounter with death here in The Land of Smiles.
Let’s return to Monday morning. When I received the call from my wife, I was on the summit of Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand, witnessing a spectacular sunrise. My school was having its annual outing for the foreign teachers. Along with me, the sole Farang, were a gaggle of Filipinos and Chinese teachers. The whole bunch of us had a wonderful time visiting waterfalls, gardens, and temples. With the school picking up the tab, we pigged out at an all-you-can eat, cook-it-yourself barbecue restaurant. The news from my wife was certainly not happy of course, but it hardly diminished the fun I was having. Old people eventually die, and I would deal with it at the appropriate time.
Meanwhile, back in Lampang, events which lead to another funeral were unfolding. An Anuban student of mine was sitting in his family’s pickup truck, while his father stepped out to do an errand. The young boy opened the glove compartment, found what he thought was a toy gun and began to play with it. It wasn’t a toy gun, and it was loaded. It took him five days to finally die. This little boy was all of four years old.
I found out the horrid news when I stepped into my office on Tuesday morning, and saw my office mate, Miss W. weeping. The little boy was her nephew. It wasn’t long before we were both weeping. Geng was a handsome boy, who lived up to his Thai nickname, which means clever. He was already doing very well learning English. Many times while waiting for his aunt, I would read him a story or two. He was a happy little guy, and always smiling. Now he was gone forever.
Forgive me if I step up on my soap box and vent my anger. There is simply no fucking excuse for a child to be able to pick up a fucking gun! Note: Dear BKKSW and other gun owners, this is not an anti-gun rant! It is an anti-idiot rant! Whatever your opinion about gun ownership, I think we can all agree that if you have a gun, it is your duty to keep the damned thing secure, and far from little children. It is the responsible thing to do.
Unfortunately, Thais are not well known for acting in a responsible manner. You only have to look at the way they drive. They routinely fail to stop for red lights and stop signs. They routinely pull out into traffic without even a cursory glance to see if anyone else is coming. They routinely drive in a reckless manner; tail-gaiting at high speeds, and passing other vehicles in places where only a crazy person would attempt to do so. Driving when intoxicated? Hell, many Thais drink while driving! Don’t even get me started about the way the ride motorcycles! Children rarely use seatbelts, and you will almost never see a small child in a car seat. They do actually sell them here in Lampang, and they don’t cost very much. What you will see are children standing up on the damned seats! Some tragedies in life we are powerless to prevent. Others however are totally preventable…if anyone is willing to engage their brain for a moment or two.
Needless to say, Geng’s death upset all of the Anuban teachers. You can’t work with young children without loving what you do. Losing one of our own, especially in such a senseless and violent manner was heartbreaking. Quite a few of us went to the family’s home for prayers and to offer our condolences. Someone had put together a little memorial with pictures of Geng. There was his whole, short life on display. There were four Happy Birthdays. There were holidays and special occasions. There were crayon drawings and finger-painted pictures. There were pictures of him wearing his school uniform and Sports Day outfit. There were flower wreaths and bouquets resting on a casket. This was not a fancy one like Bpaa-ya’s husband had. This was an old worn thing, dented and stained. It looked more suitable for refrigerating a haunch of venison, rather than a four year old boy, but you need to understand that Geng’s family was not affluent. They were ordinary working folks.
I will never forget the haunted look on his mother’s face. I’m sure she could hardly comprehend the nightmare that had happened. I can fully understand her pain and grief, having lost a two year old son many years ago. You keep waiting to wake up from a bad dream…but it never happens.
As for the father… oh, I saw him there as well. I have no idea what he was thinking or feeling. He didn’t come over to greet any of us. He will of course he will have to live with himself for the rest of his life. I do hope he threw away his gun, because he and his wife have another little boy, who just turned three.
I managed to make it through the prayer service, but I cannot bring myself to attend the funeral.
As for any philosophical perspective on death, let’s just say that I’m eagerly awaiting any tangible evidence of life beyond the world we live in, though I’m not holding my breath. I sure as hell continue to not believe in God. Any all powerful, all knowing being who could allow this to happen is one hell of an S.O.B. Meanwhile, in talking with my fellow teachers, I was disturbed to learn that many of them have guns at home…and children. Will they have the common sense to lock them up? Your guess is as good as mine. This is Thailand after all.
Thai funerals are very different to Western funerals. The few I have been to could have been mistaken by the uninitiated for a party. That said, I have never attended the funeral of a youngster which I imagine would be a much more solemn affair.