Saturday, May 10, 2003

To Death and Back in Thailand

What does a "farang" (foreigner) say in front of a crowd 300 mourners at a Buddhist funeral? Try "Khop khun khrap" 300 times or "Thank you (for coming)" as you hand out a three-pack of perfume, booklet, and hard candies as souvenirs of the event. Souvenirs from a funeral?

Last Friday, Mr. Director, our college president, sent word by student-courier: "Mr. Director would like to invite you to attend with him the funeral of his grandmother on Saturday." I was taken aback: inviting a farang to such a personal thing? I had only arrived in Thailand a few weeks back, and I hardly knew Mr. Director (and he knew less about me). What if I was the bawling type? What if I made some awful cultural gaffe at the funeral? Nevertheless, I knew this to be a gesture of honor, so I sent word back: "Please tell Mr. Director I would be honored to accompany him to such an important event." I had no idea how prophetic the work "important" would become.
At the least, I thought it might be a good chummy time to get to know Mr. Director personally. I pictured us motoring up to Sakorn Nokorn (about three-hour's drive) in his private car, and making small chit-chat along the way. He speaks good English, and so communication wouldn't be a huge problem. Since my apartment situation was still in limbo, this might be an opportune time to bring up the subject of still needing a place to live--not a totally altruistic motivation.
I arrived at the school at 8:00 a.m. Saturday per Mr. Director's instructions. I was unprepared for what met me. An entourage of three vans, one transport truck, and 40 people--mostly school administrators, teachers, some 20 close friends, and a traditional Thai dance troupe (which rode in the open back of a two-ton truck--like an army transport). One entire van was crammed with white military-type uniforms, to be worn by tenured teaching staff.
Mr. Director's car led the way up the mountain, and I was crammed into a van of administrators three cars back. So much for my apartment problem. A bit of small talk in the van (and I mean "small"' taking into account my knowledge of the Thai tongue!), and then everyone fell asleep. Fortunately, I brought my class schedule and course descriptions along so I could prepare for my first classes on Monday. About halfway, we stopped at a vineyard while everyone tasted the banana and pineapple wines made there. I took a look at the labels: about 1% alcohol, and mostly sweet fruity content. I opted for the cold water jug in the corner. I would need 100% of my faculties for what might lay ahead (and that 1% just might strike the Achilles heel).
The drive was spectacular. Winding our way up a 1,500-meter heavily wooded mountain, on top was one of King Rama's many palaces. He stays at this one in only November of each year. Everyone spoke in hushed tones as we passed by the gates on the main road. The sign was in glittering pink marble with gold flecks in it. My how the Thai love their king.
We arrived at the Buddhist temple compound in Sakhorn Nakorn about noon. Having still not received instructions, I still had no idea what to expect, say or do. Only at the last minute, before leaving, I had contacted a Thai teacher to find out what to wear. "White or black" was all I got. OK. I opted for a white shirt with black pants, compromiser that I am. While white is generally the color of death in Asia, I'm wondering if the black is borrowed from Western tradition. Don't know that one as yet. We piled out of the vehicles and after removing our shoes, were ushered into a secondary building with all glass walls and ceiling fans stirring the humid air. We sat on the floor and a feast was set before us: fried noodles, many spicy-hot nameless dishes, sliced mangoes with an accompanying sugar/salt/chilis mix in which to dip the pieces, and bottled water.
Surprisingly, it was a relaxed, almost festive atmosphere. It was then I began to realize that this was no ordinary funeral. It was actually the funeral of Mr. Director's wife's grandmother, or his "grandmother-in-law" ("in-law" is not a common description of relationships in Thailand). I was introduced to some of the other guests: travelers arriving from Pittsburgh, USA; Beijing, China; and Australia. Someone whispered in my ear that The King of Thailand, himself, had sent a flame (like the Olympic torch) from the Bangkok palace, with which to cremate the deceased--one of the highest honors a Thai can receive at death. It turns out "grandmother-in-law" had spawned two provincial governors in her lifetime. Her grandchildren were sprinkled throughout higher education, government, and religious institutions at the highest levels throughout the country. This was a woman much admired and well-known by hundreds if not thousands of Thai.
After lunch, there was a three-hour break in which the funeral participants readied themselves. I wandered through one of the preparation rooms as the Thai traditional dance troupe applied white makeup (all had to look very white, very dead), and highly ornamental gold crowns rising 12 to 15 inches above their heads. Men and women both wore lipstick, drawn eyebrows and rouge, representing spirits of the dead, gods and demons. After make up and costumes, it was almost impossible to tell the gender of the dancers.
In another preparation room, the faculty and administrators from the college readied themselves. White military-style uniforms (hat and all) were donned. Each administrator and long-standing professor had medals on their uniforms sent to them from the office of the King of Thailand, representing years of service, special accomplishments, and levels of rank within the school. As I wandered among them, each proudly explained their medals and it made for great conversation to get to know them better.

All this time, hundreds of guests streamed into the temple compound, taking their respective seats under a dark green canopy situated across a courtyard from the funeral pyre. The funeral pyre on which the body was laid, was a 75-foot-high temple-like structure draped in expensive purple and white silks with hundreds of thousands of fresh flowers adorning every exposed square inch of the structure. The event must have cost hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Red carpets seemed to roll out in every direction. In a covered structure to the left of the pyre, huge 30-foot gold statues of Buddhas sat as if supervising the whole affair with their straight-ahead gazes. Yellow-robed monks scurried in every direction with their own individual preparations. Anticipation began building for the event to begin at 3pm.
Ten minutes before the hour, Mr. Director, who seemed to be in charge of the whole affair, came over to my seat. "Mr. John, would you do the honor of participating in this most important ceremony for Grandmother?"
"Oh no!" I gasped inwardly. "Not at a funeral! I was just hoping to be a quiet observer. What if they expect me to chant to Buddha? What if they make me pick up the deceased's charred bones with chopsticks (a la Japanese custom)?" But I could see Mr. Director was intensely sincere in his desire to show me honor by this act of invitation. Mr. Director also knew I was not a Buddhist. I trusted that he would not put me in an awkward position. I followed him to the funeral pyre.
"Please stand here." He pointed at a large table laden with perfume, hard candy and a colored booklet which described the life and times of Grandmother. "At the end of the service, when the guests come individually to pay their respects to Grandmother, I would like you to give them 3 little gifts and thank them for coming. Would you please do that to honor me and the memory of Grandmother?
"Of course, Mr. Director, I will do my best." In my mind, I practiced my fledgling Thai words and the accompanying bow ("wai") with folded hands in front of my nose. How do I hand a gift and fold my hands at the same time? Would any guests be offended at this unnamed foreigner crashing their private event? What kind of expression do I wear on my face during the coming two-hour ceremony while standing at attention in the hot sun in front of this large crowd? Sad? Festive? Contemplative? Inquisitive? I arrived at "meditative".
In a few short minutes, I regretted not applying my 30 phf sunburn preventative to nose and ears before stationing myself next to the funeral pyre. The Thai tropical sun can burn North American white skin in just 30 minutes. The sweat began rolling off my face. My hair became dark and sticky-stringy. I knew big dark patches were beginning to blot my white shirt and pants. My tie started buckling with the heat and sweat. What a sight I must be.
Despite my own little tortures, the ceremony was fascinating. It began with the traditional dance troupe going through slow gyrations which I didn't know the human body could endure. Their white bodies of death sent shivers up my spine. The other-worldly music of deep drums and strange woodwind instruments added to the exotic air. I felt transported back to some distant place and ancient time.

This was followed by long stretches of chanting by the Buddhist monks. A kind administrator, Dr. S, came out to the pyre to stand next to me, explaining the ceremony. It was one of those rich on-site educational moments for which you'd give an arm and leg.
By twos, the hundreds of guests walked up the twenty or so steps to Grandmother's coffin to burn a white paper rose and place the ashes on her pyre. As they turned left and walked down the side steps, I placed a gift in their hand, did the bow-with-folded-hands thing, and thanked them for coming. Most broke into a wide smile and acted delightfully surprised that this foreigner would so willingly take part in the warp and woof of their culture. The privilege was immeasurably mine.


Another big meal followed the ceremony (attended by all 300-plus guests). I met and talked to people from all over the world: doctoral candidates from the USA, government officials, the province's head monk, and several administrators from universities throughout Thailand. Despite having such accomplished backgrounds, the Thai maintain a wonderful attitude of humility and down-to-earth personableness. No one trying to impress anyone here. I like it. I feel right at home and among instant friends. Such bright people. Such warmth. What treasures to come across in my experience.
I was invited by Mr. Director to ride home in his car with his life-long friend, Dr. S, and Mr. Director's nephew who drove. What a change from the formalities of the funeral. We told stories, joked and laughed the whole way, Mr. Director undoubtedly being relieved that his funeral responsibilities were complete; and I , because I made it through without being lynched by an angry mob for doing something stupid; and Dr . S, because he had a chance to practice his English for an upcoming speech at the APEC-related events in May.
Oh yes, the APEC meetings. Foreign ministers from 71 countries surrounding the Pacific Ocean, all coming to Isan for preliminary planning meetings at the end of May. M University and our college have been chosen as the hosting bodies for special related events here in our city. On our long drive home, Mr. Director made a decision about a dilemma of his: He felt his English was not good enough to give the opening address, nor does he want someone with a Thai accent to try to communicate with all those foreign guests. I saw the wheels turning in his head as we discussed his dilemma: "Who from our province should give the short welcoming address to our APEC visitors? Ah, the person who speaks the best un-accented English at the school? Of course! There's this new 'farang' in my car from America who seems to thrive on challenges!" Or stumbles in where angels fear to tread.
Mr. Director turned to me with another one of those imploring looks: "Mr. J, I hate to ask you this, so soon after your favor of today, but would you do me the honor of . . ."
But that's another story in itself.
And the Adventure Goes On...

Post-story note (May 2005): Due to terrorist activity picking up in Thailand's south, security concerns moved the preliminary APEC meetings from Isan to Bangkok. My 15 minutes of fame will have to wait.


SiamPhile said...

Thanks for an interesting read, JD
While white is generally the color of death in Asia, I'm wondering if the black is borrowed from Western tradition.
Black is considered more the color of death than white, I a Chinese Malaysian believe.
I was expecting the story to end with the cremation ceremony.

JD said...

Thanks Siam, for that note.

I know that white is definitely the color representing death in Japan. For instance, there, you NEVER wrap gifts in white, because of the death-association. So, it must vary considerably across Asian countries.

I understand that the cremation ceremony usually follows the burning of the white rose (mentioned in my blog). However, for some reason, the ceremony ended here. There definitely was no movement on the coffin, nor did smoke arise from the chimney throughout the day or early evening.

I wonder if they had a private cremation ceremony for closest family afterwards? This is just a guess from western perspective--similar to the private graveside ceremonies for only close family, often held after the more "public" funeral ceremony in the West.

Maybe some of my Thai readers can bring us more insight...