Thursday, 14 May 2015

Funeral Rites on Koh Phangan

Haad Rin Sunset Beach, July 2002

After three days of stomach pains the spritely Thai Grandpa, at the grand old age of 84, had finally passed away in Surat Thani hospital, surrounded by family.  The commotion at the beach bungalows on Koh Phangan in the early hours let us know he had died.

Around the table, lit now by a stark fluorescent lightbulb, the extended family from up and down the palm groves were congregating.  Ringing out their laughter into the dark of the night, they seemed to be saying:  “Go safely, Grandfather.  You're needed no longer, there'll be no tears for you here!”

I listened with my confused Western mind, in awe - how could they be laughing at the passing of their much loved, revered Grandfather?  Like giving your child a nickname like 'pig', so that evil spirits wouldn't come for them?  Only this time they were fooling the spirit world in a different way. 

With its age old Asian wisdom,'The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying' would soon throw some enlightenment on the subject for me:  not to entrap your beloved's soul on this plane with your sorrow and pining - to allow them to depart, now that it was their time to go.  

The Last Journey Home 

The family brought Grandpa's simple wooden coffin home to Koh Phangan in the back of a pick-up truck the next day, bringing him to rest at Wat Pho, the local temple, for the five day funeral rites. 

In the anti-chamber to the temple hall, Grandpa was now laid out in an intricate, refrigerated coffin, with ornate flames of enlightenment rising amidst the flashing fairy lights.  

A photo of the dearly deceased, draped with black cloth, stood beside the coffin as is the custom.  Prayer mat and incense were laid out for well wishers to light a prayer to see him on his way. 

For five days the family cooked, ate, slept, prayed and gambled at the temple, a community together sharing their grief.  Nobody had time to feel at a loss or alone - too much food to prepare, too many mouths to feed, too many dishes to wash!  

Any tears were saved for private moments of grief later. 

Rituals and Victuals

Morning and evening, the monks came to sit on the dais in the temple hall to chant the hour-long funerary rites, eating the family's proffered food at midday.

We were encouraged to spend long hours at the temple: to come and eat, then have an afternoon nap with the grandmas on the outlying stone platforms, before going home to shower.  

As part of the family, we were expected to return fresh and clean for the evening meal and the second, most important, monks' chants of the day.  When all the rituals and victuals were done, we were invited to join in with mirthful card games - 'bok daeng' and other unfathomable frivolities.

Gambling is illegal in Thailand, but gambling at the temple for a funeral?  The community policemen coming to pay their respects would only turn a blind eye.  

'How to cope with grief', Thai lessons Numbers 1 & 2 - of many - laugh in the face of adversity, and play games together!  Oh, and Number 3, drink whiskey, of course... 

Wat Pho, Ban Taai, Koh Phangan
Last Rites

Over the vigil days all the island locals came to pay their respects.  More and more people gathered as the days went by.  Family arrived from the mainland, and long lost cousins from far away came to pay their final respects to a much loved community elder.  By day five the temple was full. 

When the morning of the 'phao' - the cremation - finally arrived, the whole family cheerfully went inside the temple hall to look out at the crowd before them.

Behind and to the side, I noticed the temple simpleton opening up the burning chamber.  The first people were coming to lay their white paper lotuses at the chamber as a last goodbye... 

A great joyous roar, dominated by Mama Bird's laugh and smile, brought me back to the scene in front of me - as the family threw lucky gold-wrapped sweets in the air for the crowd to scramble over, in one very, very Thai moment of sanuk, and fun. 

And at this stage - the contrast of scenes was too much for my Western mind to grasp - amidst all the family laughter, this over-emotional farang was turning away in tears.  The superimposition of poignant scenes - joyful frivolity/last rites - was getting the better of me; the heavy weight of sorrow drowning me.  I didn't yet understand death as Buddhists do...

Wat Pho, Ban Taai, Koh Phangan
Final Goodbyes

The monks arrived to take their place on the dais for the final time.  I sat with the Langsuan mamas as we wai'd Taa Jon's soul for the last time, on his way now to the spirit world.  

As the monks took their leave I was ushered into the funeral anti-chamber with my camera, taking up my role as family photographer:  to picture the family for posterity as they posed on the mat in front of Grandpa's coffin one last time. 

By the time we were finished, I was the last person to take my white paper lily to the funeral pyre.  As I turned around I saw that they had opened the refrigerated door to the coffin - and I was trapped in between it and the burning chamber!  

Seeing the look of near panic on my face, the family closed the door again, allowing me to sneak by - before opening it once more to retrieve Grandpa's open-lidded wooden coffin inside. 

Out of the way now but still close by, I watched as little Gai rushed past me.  As his uncles carried their father's coffin, he got up on his tip toes to take one last peek at death - and five day deceased Grandpa's corpse.  Wonder what death looks like? thinks the seven year old... 

As the temple simpleton covered Grandpa's exposed face with the remainder of the white lotuses, Uncle Dterm was in tears ... and beside me now Mia Tom was beginning to sob for her grandfather:  at last, the outpouring of emotion.

As I put my arm around her, I began to understand that 'heavy weight of sorrow' was still underneath the surface, and that this moment, now, was the time to shed your tears...

And may the medium of fire speed Taa Jon's soul to the spirit world!

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