The final rites for His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX of Thailand on October 26 exceeded superlatives. This may have been the grandest funeral service in modern history. This essay ruminates on the meaning of the event from the perspective of theological anthropology.
The funeral was a CATHARSIS. There is no doubt that King Bhumibol was loved and revered by the vast majority of Thai people and by uncountable numbers of people of other nationalities. The funeral was meant to include everybody in some way or other. Somewhere between a quarter of a million to a million people got as close as they could to the Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok to watch the processions, hear the sounds, and see what they could. Symbolic replicas of that were scattered around 802 sites all over the country, with another hundred shrines in smaller locations. My estimate is that at least 1 in 7 Thai people came to one of these locations where parallel observances were held. People at home were given “ring-side” seats and encouraged to virtually participate. The purpose was emotional release and closure. King Bhumibol the Great was finally and irretrievably gone.
The funeral was an ENACTMENT. Embedded in the significance of the King’s majesty is the religious concept of a divine-human encounter. The massive and impressive crematorium structure is a representation of Mount Meru, the axial world mountain in the middle of the mythical Himavanta Forest (“Himmaphan” in the Thai version) that connects the many levels of creation. Humanity resides in the middle level below heaven and above hell, sustained by beings and forces we rarely encounter. We exist outside that forest with its mythical inhabitants and creatures. However, epiphanies do occur whereby people are privileged to benefit from the proximity and grace of certain liminal individuals who transcend the borders between realms of existence. This transcendence is metaphorical until a sacred event eradicates the boundary. Death is potentially such an event. Commentators on live telecasts repeated the belief that the King is returning to “heaven” from whence he came at birth. The royal urn that used to be used literally, but is now the King’s symbolic casket, is, of course, representative of a womb, which is a symbol incorporated in most traditional funeral rites in this part of the world. The vehicle that carried his body symbolically from the palace to the cremation grounds is in the form of a mythic boat and the procession is a re-enactment of the perilous journey across the cosmic sea. In the case of a super-social person (like the King), the nation, the regime, and all who are connected to it are also transformed by association and by virtue of metaphysical reality. Mythic narratives and symbols communicate the paradox that eternity is embodied in this enactment of a grand finale. The consuming cremation fire is actually a liberation from the limitations of mortality. It completes a cyclical round of existence.
The funeral was LESSONS. The presence of royalty and potentates from 30 countries, the scale of the cremation site and of the vehicles and structures, and the extension of the events into parallel sessions in every corner of the nation and around the world were meant to teach. One lesson is civic pride. “Thai people are significant.” Another lesson is continuity. This funeral is clad in tradition that goes back to golden roots in Ayuthaya, into India, and on back into the mythic past. These myths were prominent in the night-long performances on the cremation grounds. Continuity was also impressed by the central figure and ritual actions of King Rama IX’s son, the new King Rama X. The third lesson is unity. King Bhumibol was a unifier through his “tireless efforts” (amply mentioned in paintings adorning the funeral structures, in thousands of exhibitions in public places, and hundreds of video clips shown on TV and the internet). Thai people are united because of the King, and it has never been more apparent than at grand ceremonies to mark stages in his life and reign. The fourth lesson is appreciation. People should continue to appreciate this King and all he represents and should keep his legacy and memory “alive in our hearts.” The king was appreciated. Nothing other could have coalesced such a massive, cooperative effort. This appreciation shall be sustained as a chapter in the national narrative.
Note: This is the 358th weekly essay on our series. As we begin our sixth year as of November 1, I want to thank Adam Dedman for managing the website these past 5 years. I also appreciate our mostly anonymous readers who average 300 different persons (or about 2000 “clicks”) a week, without whom I would not have had the heart to sustain this writing. During year 6 the focus will be on personal reminiscences, reflections on current events in Thailand and the world, investigations of Thai village culture and religion, and post-postmodernism.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.