Dr. Rebecca Hall is making a long-term, in-depth study of funeral customs in Thailand. I think she’s on the right trail; if you want to understand the culture of a people there is no better place to start than with their funeral customs. Her purpose in coming recently was to study tung sam hang, 3-tailed banners. They are often used here in the North at the front of a funeral procession on the way to a cremation grounds. Rebecca had a number of questions to which she had been receiving conflicting answers. So I took her to visit with the abbot of Wat Ta Pong in the village next door to our house. Tu Daeng was available. Here are my notes on our conversation about funeral customs:
Tu Daeng, the Abbot of Wat Ta Pong was reluctant at first to talk about the “Three Tailed Banners” used in funerals. It is a taboo subject he said, and then amended his comment by adding, “You should ask those who make them, they are used at funerals.”
Later he warmed up to the subject, to some extent. He said that banners are usually made by the same people who make the catafalque for funerals. The banner and the catafalque are ordered by someone who is making arrangements for a funeral and delivered at the same time. He agreed that if the funeral did not involve a catafalque then anyone could make the banner if they had ever been ordained a monk or novice.
The banner is in the stylistic shape of a human. There is the head and body and the lower part preparing to take flight to heaven.
“When a person dies,” the abbot said, “the spirit wanders around wondering where it should be. It is looking for its place. When it sees the banner it will follow it and take its flight to heaven.” He commented also, “The banner is black and white, representing both the good and the bad that the person has done. It contains the name of the dead person as well as the date of birth and death and the age.” He reiterated that this was to aid the spirit to identify where it should be going. Tu mentioned that for other life extension ceremonies the cloth banners representing people’s spirits are colored, with various colors representing aspects of character.
“The ‘undertaker’ usually carries the banner. He is dressed poorly. Otherwise some drunk or mentally deficient person is recruited to carry it.” The banner is to be carried by the dregs of society or by someone whom no one would be tempted to emulate. [In village society the “undertaker” is virtually an outcast, but he is the one who prepares bodies for being put in caskets, prepares the cremation fire, hacks open the skull of the dead person at the last moment before the casket is set afire, and helps with gathering the cremated remains the next day.]
The banner is always burned in the cremation, the abbot insisted. Its very purpose is to show the spirit of the deceased the way to heaven. The cremated remains are gathered in a white cloth or in an urn covered with a white cloth (but not the banner of the day before). In our part of the country, Tu said, the bones are turned to powder and mixed with soil (and other things?) and stored or interred. The disposal of the bones varies from place to place.
There is also a two-tiered metal frame (somewhat resembling a funnel upside down topped by a small cone, all painted green) that Tu Daeng said holds 16 silver and gold leaves. The model he had brought for us to see only had 8 leaves, as if it was one of a pair. The leaves were called by the same term as the three tailed banner. Each of the leaves had something glued to one side. On one pair of leaves were grains of rice, on another grains of sand, and on another were small white flowers. These frames with their dangling leaves are often placed on top of the coffin during a wake.
The abbot has explained a lot, after all.
Aside from the folklore and the tradition, this raises the central question of what is going on in a Northern Thai funeral. A great many of the customs have to do with trying to make sure the spirit of the deceased finds the way to heaven. In this regard we could mention the customary fireworks, the design of the prasat (catafalque), the events at igniting the cremation fire, and several kinds of offerings. There is obviously a great deal of anxiety about wayward spirits (pii,ghosts and sometimes demonic spirits). That is confirmed repeatedly in folk traditions regarding supernatural occurrences, many of which are attributed to wandering, malcontented spirits.
The custom of having the banner carried by someone unattractive can be explained as a safeguard against the spirit being tempted to enter the banner carrier. It is a dangerous job. The spirit is distraught and may confuse the surrogate deceased with the porter. The same logic sometimes is used to name a baby “dog”, so the demonic “purchasing mother” will not be tempted to carry the baby’s spirit away.
Without waiting for Rebecca’s scholarly article, I will tentatively speculate about the 3-tailed banner. In the example which Rebecca provided (accompanying this essay) the name of the deceased has not yet been inscribed. Even without the name spelled out, the spirit of the deceased will be attracted and directed by the banner. Tung (long narrow banners suspended from tall bamboo poles to catch the breeze) are used for a variety of occasions, but they have one thing in common: they symbolize spirits. If you see a tung you think of spirits. But, as with all aspects of supernatural faith, there is an element of ambiguity and uncertainty. If the banner flutters or twists, as it is designed to do, it could be because of a stirring of the air caused by a spirit.
Another instructive device is the symbolic tree that Tu Daeng and his novice showed us. Trees are axial symbols; they connect earth to heaven. The little metal tree with its 8 leaves (note: 8, an inauspicious number rather than 9) stands for earth and all its requisite provisions. “Keep your eye on the prize,” the little tree says to the disconsolate spirit surrounded by signs of mourning and death.
Banners on auspicious and meritorious occasions are meant to attract spirits and have them involved in the festivities as benefactors or beneficiaries.
The three-tailed banner of a funeral is supposed to entice the spirit to follow the procession from the familiar home and village into the liminal, threshold precincts of the cremation forest (cemetery, called baa chaa or “lingering forest”). It would be natural for a spirit under those circumstances to be skittish, so its attention is repeatedly drawn to the presence of the deceased in hopes that the spirit will believe the priest’s chanted references to the naturalness of all that is going on and the benefits of leaving this world. Meanwhile, the banner flutters with its tail like a bird taking flight, like a phoenix to be precise.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.