A PERPLEXING PUZZLE
A puzzle presented itself in the past few days: WHEN TWO PEOPLE DIE IN A VILLAGE, WHY MUST THEY BE CREMATED AT THE SAME TIME? And why must the final religious services for the second person to die be conducted before those of the first?
Nai Jan (Mr. Jan) died on Wednesday. His final religious service and cremation was set for Saturday. Nang Som (Mrs. Som) died at 4 a.m. on Friday. Som’s family was told her funeral must be the very next morning. Her son had to get off work and travel 800 km to get back in time for his mother’s funeral. On Saturday, Som’s funeral was first and then there was a meal for everyone. Her funeral procession passed Jan’s house while his funeral was going on. All of Som’s family and neighbors waited two hours at the cremation grounds for Jan’s funeral procession to arrive so the cremations could take place simultaneously.
I tried to find out why things had to happen in this complicated order. Why was it absolutely necessary? Normally, social convention favors a family’s exclusive right to make life-passage arrangements. Nothing in Buddhist lore mentions why one funeral must be before another.
The greatest mystery is death. It is the cause of our most universal apprehension. The death of a person impacts not only the individual, but the family, the community, and society. Every culture has developed ways of dealing with death.
After quizzing a dozen people, who gave contradictory answers to my “why?”, I think I have found a strand that untangles the puzzle.
The matter is about how the supernatural realm is perceived by people around here in North Thailand. Basically, the supernatural is obscured and only handled tentatively. Metaphors favor the idea that there are divinities that reign in nature, and spirits (ghosts or pii) abide in the supernatural realm. Some of them are rogue demons, formerly the spirits of living beings, but bereft and hostile, seeking revenge or solace. They are more dangerous if there are more of them.
Funerals are designed to handle the spirits of the deceased. That is the primary purpose, rather than to comfort the survivors (which is the point of modern funerals in other cultures). The normal plan is as follows:
1. When a person dies, the body is given its last bath and clothed a final time.
2. The body is removed into a special container. The casket is a signal to all realms, mortal and immortal, that life has departed from this body.
3. Priests chant to remind everyone that life is impermanent.
4. Merit is made by having priests do this, and that merit is transferred by a water-pouring ritual to the credit of the deceased.
5. The casket is moved onto a meru (an elaborate catafalque) symbolizing the departure of the deceased into a different realm of existence, not of this world.
6. Priests conduct a tawn ritual to extract the spirit and demand it get ready to leave. Spirits are presumed to be confused and in need of regulation.
7. As the funeral procession goes to the cremation grounds, in the lead is someone carrying a “three tailed banner” with the name of the deceased and a declaration of the dates of birth and death. A portrait of the deceased removes any doubt about who is being taken for cremation.
8. The cremation begins with noise and spectacle to drive the ghost-spirit to go where it needs to go in order to get ready for reincarnation.
9. The body is cremated so there is no place in this world for the spirit to remain.
The normal thing for a community to do is to handle one body at a time. But when there are two overlapping deaths there are two distressed spirits abroad. They are apt to create havoc and seek a third to join them. Northern Thai supernatural lore has it that before these spirits can go on a rampage, setting off a chain of deaths and disasters, they must be discombobulated and befuddled. A sequence of deaths has begun (whether it is caused by ghosts or not, no one is sure) that must be broken.
Sequential deaths are an ominous thing.
A non-sequential death is manageable in three steps: 1. The body is prepared after death. 2. A funeral is conducted during which the spirit is sent to its destiny and poses no further danger. 3. The body is cremated and gone. Any more deaths are separate events.
The logic behind the puzzle that confronted us is not so complicated, after all. When there are two spirits at large, having not yet been properly dispatched by the funeral rites, it is best to keep them confused until the end, so they cannot join forces and avoid the departure that would be best for all concerned.
The only thing a village can do is to disrupt the sequence. That is why, when Som died before Jan’s funeral was completed, the normal plan was disarranged. Instead of having Jan’s funeral before Som’s, it was the other way around. Then instead of sequential cremations, there was a simultaneous cremation.
It was as confusing as it was meant to be. Hopefully, the desperate spirits of Mr. Jan and Mrs. Som were distracted from any recruitment of still another spirit to join them.
This way of doing things had no guarantee of success. Nothing about the supernatural ever is certain. People cling to prevailing wisdom in times of danger. When a belief prevails about what is best, social pressure to conform will be exerted, and consequences could be severe for disregarding the people’s will.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.