We are having some building work done on our newly completed house with the aim of making what has ended up a very liveable design even better. One day after starting all work stopped for three days and loud Isaan music could be heard being played from our part of the village (my commitment to double glazed windows pays off every day). What had happened? Someone had died. In fact this is the fifth or sixth funeral that has happened in the last few months but the first one where I had previously met the deceased. Based on this we went to one part of the funeral wake and I thought I would share the day with you.
The story starts with our house building ceremony back in November last year, which every new construction in Thailand will have prior to commencement. Footings can be dug but nothing comes above ground until the spirits have been informed and the new construction cleared with them. You can read about our ceremony HERE. You also can’t move into the house until the spirits have been brought up to speed and you can read about that ceremony HERE.
The reason I raise this in relation to the funeral is that one essential part of the ceremony was constructed by the man who had just died, a guy called Lom pictured above.
The tubular wicker basket at the top of the steel reinforcing is actually a fish trap and for some reason it was required for the ceremony and purchased from Lom who lived a couple of doors down from the family home where we were staying at the time.
A very long introduction to the funeral story but the reason I felt a connection to this man was that in a very small way he contributed to our lovely village house and I wanted to acknowledge his passing. I also feel saddened by the loss of another part of the culture of Isaan and small village life. I doubt anyone within his family will be taking over making these items and it is a skill that will eventually die out. Some factory in China will be producing them and probably already do. Somehow that just isn’t the same as having one made for you by a guy down the road while you watch.
A Thai funeral is a big affair within the village. Bodies are cremated here unless you are Chinese Thai in which case you are more likely to buried. In travelling around Thailand you will often see buildings that look like this one below usually situated within a temple grounds but separate from the main buildings.
In this case the body was held for three days with the fire ceremony on day three. You can’t get cremated on a Tuesday – I am not sure why. A death is no excuse not to have a long party and the wake runs for six days, the three before the fire and then three days afterwards. If the family is very poor then this time is compacted. If rich then longer. In a village environment you will often see an entire street blocked off with shelters constructed in the road if the land is too small to hold the event. In our case the house had a decent spread of land so apart from a row of motorbikes the road was passable.
The Isaan party machine must swing into action quickly because no sooner than the death happened the music and announcements started and the marquees were up and food was being prepared. The shelters are rented for almost nothing from the moo baan’s (village) community stock, and all cookware and eating utensils are borrowed from the local temple.
The deal is that everyone connected to or who knew the deceased turns up either for a once only visit or to stay for as long as they like. For a long term villager like Lom almost the whole community will make a appearance at some time and of course the connections spread into other moo baans further away and all the way to Bangkok. Everyone makes a cash donation to the family, which is recorded and read out over the loud speakers, and in return the family provide entertainment, food and drink for the entire period, which is a massive effort.
Big families were the norm in Lom’s era. Children’s responsibility was to look after their parents in later life and this is still taken very seriously in Thai society. Lom had eight children and this is one of the daughters with Gaun in the photo above. Gaun is one of seven.
No event would be complete without the involvement of the local monks and funerals are no different. They turn up each day and often in the evenings too. The daytime arrival is timed for lunch and in this case was 11.00 am. Monks aren’t allowed to eat between noon and sunrise.
Thai men, there are no female monks only nuns who have a much lower status, will often spend a brief time as a monk as part of their progress into adulthood often linked to vassa or the rainy season. Three months is usual but it varies. You can read about a local ceremony to proclaim a temporary monk HERE. Needless to say there is a big party and everyone gets very happy! Young men may also become part of the temple community and be educated as part of monastic life as described by Wikipedia below:
During the latter half of the 20th century, most monks in Thailand began their careers by serving as temple boys (Thai: เด็กวัด dek wat, “children of the wat“). Temple boys are traditionally no younger than eight and do minor housework. The primary reason for becoming a temple boy is to gain a basic education, particularly in basic reading and writing and the memorization of the scriptures chanted on ritual occasions. Prior to the creation of state-run primary schools in Thailand, village temples served as the primary form of education for most Thai boys. Service in a temple as a temple boy was a necessary prerequisite for attaining any higher education, and was the only learning available to most Thai peasants. Since the creation of a government-run educational apparatus in Thailand, the number of children living as temple boys has declined significantly. However, many government-run schools continue to operate on the premise of the local village temple.
A brief chant completed the monk’s involvement and they were back into their pickup truck for the short ride back to their temple, which is just at the end of the street.
I was having a drink and the family were eating lunch when two of Lom’s sons came around with a tray and a silver bowl filled with water. I had watched people take a bunch of leaves, dip it into the water and sprinkle the contents of the tray. When it came my turn Gaun told me that these were some of Lom’s bones! Well I have to say that this was a first for me. Not sure how it would go down at a funeral in Australia but if you want to make one a little different give it a go and let me know how it went!
We were just about to wind up our involvement when Gaun’s brother (number 5) turned up to pay his respects to Lom. Gaun’s family obviously do all have names but names aren’t a big thing in Thailand. They are all nicknames anyway. You will probably never know a Thai person’s real given name and it will be never used. However Gaun maybe an exception because she played up in school and the teacher used to shout out “Suban Vansutha” on a regular basis. We have met Gaun’s teacher and she has calmed down. Gaun has too marginally.
Of the seven children in Gaun’s family my knowledge of names runs like this – sister number 1, Yurt (although Gaun just calls her sister number 2), brother number 3, Paed, brother number 5, Gaun and Yuan!
Anyway brother number 5 is a fisherman based close to the large lake that I wrote about HERE. If visiting us you will be offered a boat ride on the lake as this is a great half day expedition. He was a very heavy lao-khao or Thai white whisky (pure rocket fuel distilled from rice) drinker until he met his wife who told him it was the whisky or her. He has been on the wagon for seven years now. Ah the power of a good woman.
After a couple of bottles of beer on a warm morning we headed home, me for a quick reflection on the inside of my eyelids and Gaun to work in the garden. I do love being involved with the cultural differences like this occasion and it is one of the reasons living here is often so surprising and interesting.
Just as a final note I printed out two photos I had taken of Lom making the baskets, one of which is towards the beginning of this post, and Gaun and I dropped them around to the family this afternoon. We had such a positive response and I felt that my acknowledgement of Lom’s contribution to our house was complete.
And where is the fishing basket now? It is hung from the ceiling of our sala at the end of the garden.
Thanks for reading.