A village funeral is one of the most common and complex events in village life. Briefly, it is a final tribute to a member of the community, an expression of sympathy for the family and friends of the deceased, a religious reminder of the realities of life and death, a community bonding activity, a way to make merit to balance one’s karma, re-alignment of relationships in the family and community, and (not least important by any means) guidance for the spirit of the deceased to leave the village.
Funerals comprehend the whole range of emotions and concerns: that death is suffering which is only partly softened by knowledge that it is universal, that the community has been weakened and reduced which is only to some extent repaired by the experience of the whole community being involved in funeral, by fear and anxiousness about ghosts of the deceased and others which need to be addressed as effectively as possible, and by concern to aid the deceased as much as possible by performing meritorious acts in his or her behalf. Since the most meritorious acts possible are those that support and promote the spread of Dharma, which is done by monks above all, monks have a central role in funerals even though the Lord Buddha left no instructions regarding ceremonies to mark life passages.
Resources and participation of every available, able member of the village is expected at funerals. Here in Northern Thailand nearly every aspect of the death, funeral and cremation of a body is public. It is as far from the remote, misty, pastel process in the USA as imaginable. In the first place, many people die at home, especially if their deaths are anticipated and considered inevitable. Family is close at hand. If death is imminent, attempts are made to have the dying person fix attention on the Lord Buddha and possibly to enunciate one of the names of the Buddha. When the death occurs the family makes the immediate decisions about the funeral, what auspicious day it will be concluded, how many nights of ceremony and chanting will precede it (normally 3), and who will be arranging what. These decisions are matters of discussion which gradually become firm.
One consideration is cost. Funerals can be elaborate and expensive, but there is nothing to be gained from ostentation beyond the family’s means. Nor, for that matter, is embarrassing frugality appropriate. A person’s status in village society is already clear to everybody. But the village as a whole, and not just the family, contributes. There are 2 contributions of money. One is made to a funeral fund, which is a voluntary insurance association. Every member of the association contributes a small fixed amount whenever anyone dies. The association pays out a lump sum to help the family defray expenses. But there is a second collection during the evenings and the last day of the funeral made by family, neighbors and acquaintances from far and near that is called “merit making”. The money is given to the family and may be their resource to pay hospital costs or accumulated debts of the deceased. In our village it would be unusual for a family not to “break even” or even have a small surplus after the funeral and cremation.
Some things cost money that comes from the family. The first expense is for a casket. Since cremation is common most caskets are made of combustible wood. Size and decoration varies, but in our village the casket is usually enclosed in an outer casket that is more elaborate. It was a contribution by a member of the community and simplifies matters when people are deciding on what casket to buy and burn.
The body of the deceased is ceremonially bathed. That includes, in some cases, just pouring water over one hand of the body, which is then placed in the coffin. In our villages the entire body is given a soaking.
In earlier times bodies were preserved from the time of death until the cremation by being stored with blocks of ice in the casket. If bodies were to be kept for a longer time, as in the case of paupers who were cremated as a group from time to time, or as is still the case with important monks or royalty, the bodies would be placed in specially designed containers and the body fluids would drain away until the bodies were desiccated. Now, as far as I know, it is universal to have the body “protected” by formalin injected intravenously, replacing the blood. But no attempt at cosmetic preservation is attempted.
The family also invests in a catafalque or platform (prasat sop) to hold the casket on the day before the cremation and during the cremation, if it is out in the open (about which more later). This framework is highly symbolic. It can be relatively simple or quite elaborate. But in any case it represents all the things that a Buddhist temple building symbolizes. It is many-tiered like temple roof-lines, depicting the “world mountain” or the world axis. In other words, it is a symbolic link between heaven and earth, between the next destination for the spirit and the present residence. But the decorations are two-fold, standing for time-honored cultural traditions while also suggesting nobility and human dignity, giving final honor to the deceased. There are craftsmen who produce these catafalques and the necessary accessories such as the three-tailed banner (see: www.kendobson.asia/blog/three-tailed-banners). They are pre-fabricated and assembled on site.
Another expense is for flowers. (See: www.kendobson.asia/blog/flowers). They are provided by florists these days, although not long ago they would be collected and arranged from whatever was available in the community.
Since the funerals here in our village are all conducted in homes, and since crowds of friends, neighbors and family will need to be accommodated, men of the village are recruited as soon as the death is announced over the community public address system to help set up “tents” which are open sided awnings made of metal pipes with plastic-cloth coverings. These arrangements are completed with fluorescent lights and oscillating fans. The village owns these “tents” and they are available for whoever needs them. Plastic chairs also come from the village stock, as well as tables, cooking equipment, dishes, glasses and everything needed for feeding large crowds. In fact, families generally make donations of some of these supplies for the community or the temple as part of their merit-making in memory of dead relatives.
Each evening after a death until the day of the cremation there may be a ceremony which family and neighbors attend. If the deceased is well known these evenings may attract large crowds and the affair will include a meal for those who have traveled to attend. There may also be exhibitions of pictures or a video production that reviews the life and accomplishments of the deceased. A memorial book is usually produced for guests to take away. The book is usually a collection of chants and mantras for meditation, and may include an obituary of the deceased. But in our village such extravagances are rare. But even for the most modest ceremony there will need to be some refreshments and ice water.
This is not just for purposes of hospitality and to assuage grief. Since these ceremonies are for the benefit of the deceased the entire undertaking must be effused with emotions of gratitude. Meritorious actions are beneficial only insofar as they are received with gratitude. As the monk’s sermon is apt to mention, we cannot be certain of the disposition of the spirit of the deceased, but we can create as much gratitude and thankfulness as possible.
The largest expense is for the final religious service, the community meal, and the actual cremation. Crews from the village do the food preparation and cooking. The family decides on the menus, which can vary from quite modest to very expensive. However, since the food is cooked locally, in most cases, the cost is just for the purchases from the market. If the family is better off financially, it has become common to hire the big final meal catered.
For the final service a chapter of monks will be recruited. Since funerals are inauspicious occasions, the monks will be an even number; eight is normal. When they have all arrived the “ajan wat” (a lay leader who knows the laity’s chants) will begin the ceremony, the chapter of monks will chant traditional stanzas from Buddhist scriptures, one of the monks will chant a sermon (which may include some impromptu additions, or be entirely ad-lib) and the ceremony will conclude with water pouring as chanting is going on. During this final portion of the service the deceased will be featured in the chants and the family will be mentioned prominently in ways that are very similar to Christian prayer.
When the service is over there will be a ceremonial meal for the monks, and everyone else will eat at the same time. Funerals are one of the times when almost everybody in the village eats together. As many as 100 men and women (fully a quarter of the village) will be involved in meal preparation, dismantling the “tents” and sending the borrowed equipment back to the village hall for storage.
After the meal the trip to the cremation grounds will be lined up and then a procession will either ride or walk en mass. When people arrive at the cremation grounds they are generally presented with a souvenir as an expression of appreciation from the family; it may be something quite simple, such as a tiny jar of Tiger Balm ointment.
At the cremation grounds the monks will again chant. Then they will ceremoniously remove packets of monk’s “robes” from atop the casket, which is a tradition hearkening back to the pre-Buddhist past where religious ascetics got their garments from cloths left at cremation grounds. It is said that the reason Buddhist monks’ garments are yellow is because saffron was the cheapest dye in North India, very much the same rationale as Franciscan monks in Italy used dark dye for their robes also gathered from cemeteries. When the monks have finished, the “undertaker” will prepare the body and coffin for cremation. Legs of the coffin will be knocked off so it does not tip over. The lid of the coffin will be opened and the undertaker will anoint the corpse with pure coconut water. Cracking open the coconut could be what is left of a more ancient act of cracking open the cranium to release the spirit. If the body is a woman it will be turned over, face down. This is often accompanied by loud calls for the spirit to depart. The actual fire can be lighted in several ways. One of the more spectacular is to have one of the monks light a rocket attached to a wire that leads to the pyre. The fire also sets off fireworks that include aerial bombs (if the family can afford it) to signify the finality of the cremation and also to further dissuade the deceased’s spirit from trying to linger. More and more cremations are done in modern crematoria, which are ovens fired by electricity or gas. In this case there may also be fireworks but it is the smoke from the crematorium chimney that is to be noticed. The prasat sop is burned at the same time. With that the ceremonies are over.
On the second morning after the cremation the closest family members with 2 monks will collect the cremated “bones” in a white cloth prepared just for this. The bones are pulverized into dust and then after the priests chant briefly the powder mixed with phosphorus is ignited and expelled into the heavens.
That’s how village funerals are done around here in our villages in the North.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.