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The International Writers Magazine:Thailand - Archives

Invitation to a Thai funeral
• Sue Avison
It was mid-morning and the temperature was climbing faster than I could bike up the narrow road. Underneath my helmet, my hair clung to my scalp and perspiration dripped into my ear. The canopy of trees offered little protection from the heat and the bike seat offered little protection to my throbbing rear end.
Thai Monk

We stopped outside one of the many small villages that surround Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. It was nestled amongst fields of rice and corn and it was shielded by hills that showed glimpses of greenery following the recent rain.

An old man, clearly unaffected by the heat, leaned casually against the village gate. Square jawed, with an American GI haircut and a gold watch loosely dangling on his wrist, he stood no more than five foot four tall. On the edge of this dusty village, he looked out of place in his clean, pressed, grey trousers and sage green, hibiscus printed Hawaiian shirt.

Um, our personal guide for the next four days of our Thai ‘adventure travel’ was a slightly built, handsome young man in his late twenties. He spoke in the gentle soft lilt of the Thai people and appeared to know everyone we passed. In response to their friendliness I had to quickly learn how to wave out while keeping my balance on the potholed dirt trail. No mean feat for someone who hadn’t been on a bike for 15 years.

Seong Like everyone else we had met on our way, the old man greeted Um warmly, so Um introduced us to the old man. Following a great deal of gesticulation and laughing, Um told us the old man’s name was Seong (pronounced song) and his village was preparing for a funeral. A well respected elder had passed away but we were most welcome to go in and have a look around. I can’t say I’ve ever been invited to check out a funeral before, but after travelling through Thailand and Vietnam and meeting the people, I don’t know why I found this gesture so surprising.

Leaving our bikes at the village gate, we followed Seong down the dusty gravel road that led to his village. Spotting the camera around my neck and using the international language of signing, he gestured for me to take his photo. He stood proudly in front of the lens and posed tight-lipped but smiling. My shutter clicked. I whispered to Um, “I want to take a photo of him smiling but relaxed;” which was code for I want a photo of him smiling with his lips apart.
“Can you ask him?”   
A rapid exchange took place between the two of them. Um, in his quiet, educated, urban Thai and Seong, giggling like a naughty child holding his hand over his mouth.
“He doesn’t want to, he is embarrassed” said Um.
“Tell him not to be embarrassed, I think he is handsome.”
Um said something to Seong and he opened his mouth to laugh, the sinews in his neck tightening. There it was; a cavern, except for a few yellow rotting stumps loosely suspended from gums stained red by years of chewing betel juice. Seong closed his eyes for a milli-second and so did my camera shutter.
I showed him the photo on the camera screen. Laughing, he took the camera and proudly showed the photo to his friends. He could not speak English and I could not speak Thai, but we understood each other. I liked this little man with his big red, toothless smile.

Um became redundant as our guide as Seong stepped in to show us around. He pointed out the coffin, draped with a dark purple cloth. It sat on a raised wooden platform inside a three walled hut. On top of it sat a photo of the deceased.

Surrounding the coffin sitting cross legged, old women were busy making decorative cones from banana leaves which they filled with white orchids. Their perfume sweetly caressed the back of our throats.  Um explained, through Seong, that these scented decorations accompany their loved ones onto the next stage of their journey into the afterlife.

Funerals were clearly women’s work. Women of all ages gathered in small groups to attend to their tasks. Some squatted on child sized coloured plastic stools like the ones my children sat on in our kindergarten back home, and others perched on their haunches. Laughing and sharing stories, one group which had gathered on a wooden platform designed to keep the cobras from joining them, cut up pieces of red meat on tree trunk chopping boards.

Thai Cooks They tossed the cubed meat into white, chipped, enamel bowls.  The village dogs which lay close by pretended to be asleep, until a chunk of meat missed the bowl and landed on the dusty ground. Around several small open fires another group of younger women were filling large metal cooking pots with vegetables freshly dug from the surrounding fields. A few men sat quietly, at a distance, doing very little except smoking and watching the women work.

The air smelt of meat too long in the sun, freshly picked vegetables simmering on the fire and sweet orchids. This was a festive event. Seong told Um the funeral would last for five days and only when the monk arrived would the grieving start.

In Buddhist tradition, many of the activities surrounding the funeral are intended to make merit for the deceased. Crying is discouraged so as not to worry the spirit of the one who has died. Buddhists believe that death along with all of existence is suffering, yet it is universal and not to be taken in sadness. Funerals are a celebration of liberation.

In everyday life in Thailand there is strong emphasis on the concept of sanuk; the idea that life should be fun. Because of this, Thai people can be quite playful at work and during their day-to day activities, even it would seem, during funeral preparations.  

Our guided tour had come to an end. I was trying to imagine if we would welcome strangers into our funeral rituals back at home as warmly as I was welcomed here. Perhaps the custom of sanuk would be a good one to cross cultures.
Seong smiled exposing the debris in his mouth. I took one last photo before waving goodbye.
© Sue Avison August 2013

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