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Tea Leaves

In praise of Thai funerals

Inclusivity of the event is particularly valuable to those grieving

Monks connect mourners with a white thread that is attached to the front fender of a pickup truck hearse. (Photos by Dominic Faulder) 

It may be an odd compliment, but I think Thais do some of the world's best funerals. That is only an impression, of course, because most of the non-Thai funerals I have attended were in the U.K. Many were in magnificent church settings, with selected readings, poignant eulogies and stirring music. British funerals are often preceded by wakes and followed by receptions. The best of these are parties the deceased would have thoroughly enjoyed -- gatherings of treasured people.

But British funerals can also be grim. I recently joined a Zoom funeral of the COVID-19 era. Rows of tense, gray faces stared from my laptop as a beloved uncle was interred in Scotland with just two members of his family present, a priest and piper.

I was recently reminded of how well Thais can do funerals in a much more bucolic and warm setting in Ubon Ratchathani, northeastern Thailand, near the borders of Cambodia and Laos. It was a true village funeral with a charcoal-fired crematorium on the edge of a wooded temple compound.

I actually prefer Thai Buddhist funerals to Thai weddings. At the latter, people are preoccupied with checking who has not been invited, calculating the correct depth of "wai," the traditional raised-palm greeting, and chattering unashamedly through the speeches. All are welcomed to a Thai funeral, including non-Buddhists. In the final ceremony, everybody circumambulates the crematorium anticlockwise three times with the coffin, and everybody pays their final respects before the cremation.

I have never met a Buddhist missionary, but I have felt welcome in all the Buddhist temples I have visited in Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand. As an employer or close friend I have even been asked to present robes to the presiding monks. There is a genuine inclusivity, which is particularly valuable to those grieving.

Thai funerals generally last three days, with bathing and chanting rites leading up to the actual cremation, usually late in the afternoon. Cool ashes are collected early the following morning, often with alarming chunks of unburnt bone. Those in the know pay for extra oven time to reduce this problem. For some, the sight of the corpse -- undergoing bathing rites at the outset, or if the lid is lifted prior to cremation -- can be daunting. But in some ways, this is not much different to open-casket arrangements in the West.

All funerals should help people deal with bereavement. The genius in Thailand's funerary customs is rooted in village temples, where everybody gathers to provide the bereft with communal support. This involves restrained but meaningful social interaction. Food and drink are consumed, and remembrance gifts are bestowed. I was once given an umbrella on a rainy night. In between the rounds of chanting, people catch up on their news. The family is kept sufficiently busy hosting the event to ward off some of the grief.

Village cremation in Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani Province. 

This is not uniquely Thai, but it is done particularly effectively in Thailand. I once attended the funeral of the father of a good friend even though I had never met the old man. The friend later mentioned this; I doubt that in his place I could have recalled the mourners in such detail.

A senior business executive once explained the hierarchy of a Thai funeral. As a young man, he would sit at the back in a white open shirt observing the girls in their sleek black outfits. As the years passed, he moved up toward the bereaved families and guests of honor seated upfront. One day, he was sitting as the besuited guest of honor, his eyes riveted on the furnace door up the crematorium steps, when it dawned on him that he had only one more move to make up the funerary ladder.

The most prestigious funerals in Thailand are royally sponsored, and can last for weeks, months or even years. Bestowal of an ornate royal funerary urn is considered a great honor, but many well-heeled recipients opt for a hidden simple coffin. The first full-bore royal funeral I saw was for Queen Rambhai Bharni, the wife of King Prajadhipok, who abdicated in 1935 and died aged 48 in 1941, as London was being bombed in the Blitz.

The former king was cremated at London's Golders Green Crematorium to the strains of Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, but there was no official representation from the Thai or British governments. The dowager queen eventually returned to Bangkok with his remains, which rest in the Grand Palace with the other eight past kings of the 238-year-old Chakri dynasty. Her grand funeral in 1985 compensated for what her husband missed.

As a boy on my way to school, I used to rush past Golders Green Crematorium every morning. The only cremation I attended there was my paternal grandmother's in 1972. It was a somber affair, and I had no inkling of how much better such things could be in Thailand.

Dominic Faulder is a Nikkei Asia associate editor.

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