Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Transformative Fire

Tuesday at lunch I was informed that Leudee (my director at Thai Samakee), and the bulk of the other teachers would be heading to a village cremation ceremony. There would be no further classes. I was given to understand that although I was in no way required to attend, I was also welcome to come, and as Kru Tuey made very clear, take photos. Having been to a village wedding and an army base birthday party, I was eager to witness this aspect of Isan culture. In fact, as I am scheduled to attend a city wedding this weekend, I was tempted to call this post, Two Weddings and a Funeral.  Even more tempting was the title Thai Barbecue, since this is what Tuey ended up calling it in explaining it to me. Tuey, a wild character, knew exactly what she was saying, cackling fanatically over the remark and repeating it several times. This in response to my questioning if the affair did not, well, smell pretty intensely as it burned. No! no!  You like barbecue? This is Thai barbecue!  Difficult to get a read on the tenor of the impending event. I had only my own Western sense of how to "be" at such a moment. Mostly, besides being highly intrigued, I suffered anxiety over offending my village, being either run out or possibly burned along with the corpse. Speaking of which, occasionally I will suffer a bout of a sort of experiential vertigo, where anything seems possible. I once daydreamed, in the middle of sorting through a bowl of god-knows-what bits and bones of god-knows-what creature, that I was daily being fattened up for some kind of ritualistic Thai cannibal feast, and for a few seconds it actually leaked into my brain as a plausible scenario. Anyhoo, I asked if I could nip home and get a black shirt since they were all in black and I had a feeling... Funny how I missed that memo. Someday I am going to come across a giant memo box somewhere at school, where all the notices explaining just what the fuck is going on day to day are piled up in a giant paper mountain big enough to ski down. Well, they all pointed to Leudee who was in a pink shirt like mine (Tuesday- King's Day- did I mention I love the King? I do), and Leudee shook her head in agreement and said, of course, Mai pen rai. So I packed into Tuey's Toyota with the other teachers, Leudee close behind, and we drove through the village and out into what they call "the forest", which  to us would be better described as "the small patch of ground where there are no rice fields yet". I don't think James Cameron is going to model his next 3D utopian alien planet on these forests, let me put it that way. We were among the first to arrive at a 30x40 foot cement pad with a tin roof facing the log pile pictured above. We took a seat in the fourth row of the neatly arranged ubiquitous plastic chairs (they come in blue and red- seems about an even split). I wondered at this choice of place until the pickup truck of monks arrived and stationed themselves in the first two rows, and then some very sharp politicians rolled up in their SUV's (the car to drive if you have money here- with the exception of a rare, stellar Mercedes). In the meantime I reflected on the size of the logs and the lack of kindling. Clearly there would be an accelerant  involved. And the permanence of the concrete pad denoted a regularity to the proceedings. I also had time to notice the crisp black jacket Leudee had donned over her pink shirt. Yes. The tall guy is a falang, and in case you couldn't pick him out, he is wearing a bright pink shirt to stand out against the night sky of black. Thank Buddha for Mai Pen Rai. Another way of interpreting it, at least for me lately, has been more of a Get over yourself! You are not that important! vibe. So I followed orders and I went where I wanted and took photos as I could. Discretion informed my movements and I tried to proceed with a pure heart- whatever that might be. But I admit I was after good shots too.

The monks spanned a range of ages, and they sat accordingly, the younger monks in the second row and the old geezers up front. They had a little time to kill, so this one decided to have a cigarette.
How does that jibe with the whole renunciation of the material world? He must be the Chris monk. The monk on the right with the glasses was the official chanter during the actual ceremony, and if his looks do not lie he was definitely the elder statesman. These monks exuded the kind of detachment and calm that indicates the depth of their practice. They are alert, yes, but absolutely no sort of self conscious vibe of judgment comes off of them. After 10 or 15 minutes more people arrived and took up chairs. Then came a sound of an amplified song and a line of younger monks came walking this rope to the log pile.
They were followed by young girls in white, including several of my students (So that's  why weren't in class- must be memo #409292). It turns out the woman at the center of the ceremony was one student's grandmother. Apparently she was married to a wealthy man, but then in her second marriage she did not do as well. I asked about alimony and, as far as I could understand, there is no such thing here. I could be wrong- I know enough now NEVER to assume I have emerged from a conversation with a complete understanding. (Case in point- I went into town the other day for a crescent wrench. I held up a fixed box wrench. I made the gesture over and over again of the same wrench but with an opening jaw. No? No way? You know what I mean? No? Out of stock? Never had those? You are very sorry? Okay, well thank you. Oh. and what is this as I am leaving? This nice pile of crescent wrenches? Oh. Can I please buy this? Thank you.) Anyhoo- if I have it right when a man and a woman part there is no legal recourse for the woman. It is a very patriarchal society so in some ways I can believe it.
Well, the rope was tied to this truck which carried the casket and several male family members. There was music being piped from those speakers on the truck, but for once it was a softer, sad and melodic music. The truck pulled right up to the woodpile ( with a little human group pushing), and the men took apart the elaborate casket construct and put just the casket on the wood. Then they unsealed the actual casket and the woman's son did something extraordinary. He leaned into the casket with his face and came flying upwards with a cloth covered in white powder in his teeth, which he flung with a jerk over his shoulder, covering himself with the white powder. It happened too quickly for me to get a shot, and I was too stunned anyway to operate the shutter. Tuey explained that this is a tradition and next to follow was washing of the woman's face with coconut water. Several family members and some young monks performed this rite. It was quiet. There was something absolutely wonderful about the tender way they did it.

Several women went around with platters of a sprig of wood shaving curled just so with a sort of prayer typed on it. I tried to pick one up for Tuey but she was adamant she must take her own. There was a hierarchical order to people going up to put these on the pyre, first family with some chanting by the monks, then her close friends, then the teachers who had her in school, and then there was the general scrum, of which I was a part.
 I should note that at this point there were close to one hundred people who had arrived walking from the family home behind the truck and who now sat in the grass all about us. There was one group of farmer men who sat over on their own, smoking and not doing much of the weiing and praying. This is just after I placed my merit stick on the pyre.
I said a little prayer thing- not really knowing what to pray for for a dead buddhist- I hope you don't come back? At least not as an American politician or media figure? I just said I hoped she was at peace where ever she was. You can see the suitcase on the pyre here and the big plastic bag of what looked like clothes or at least cloth of some kind. There followed a long session of chanting by all the monks, the ancient one leading on the microphone. They had strung another line of string from the casket to where he sat and chanted, which was then removed when they set two big-assed logs on either side on top. I am being a bit crude in using that term, but these actually crushed the casket, which I knew then was not made out of the dense mahogany seen nearly everywhere. A man in orange, but not a monk, lit some torches and handed them to the monks who had stepped forward.

While they were doing this, other men were liberally dousing the pile with some kind of gasoline, diesel or kerosene I am assuming since it did not explode when the monks torched it. Oddly, the moment it was ignited, the crowd dispersed. Clearly the ceremony and all of its symbolism was geared to the moments prior to the fire beginning. No one stayed to witness the actual fire doing its work, with the exception of the younger monks in the second row

Who seemed to be sitting more out of a sense of letting the crowd move on and the elder monks make their way back to the monk truck than any actual ritual or personal interest. A pyromaniac from way back, I could not resist approaching such a conflagration, especially one that included human, or at least fleshly, fuel.

I thought about the woman as I stood there. She was 52. Just a year older than me. Apparently she had been diagnosed with liver cancer a scant two months earlier. When I suggested it might be drinking unfiltered water-something I had heard from my British friend Allen-the teachers all insisted no, it was from eating too much raw Goong and raw fish- which I suppose could have something to do with the water or it could just be what the public here is afraid of the way we are quite sure that this, that, and the other thing is what causes cancer in the USA. It was. I would have to say a pretty good funeral- one I wouldn't mind. Out here in the open and simple. Befitting a villager's life, or perhaps any life when you get down to it- all the ashes to ashes, dust to dust aspects if you know what I mean. Beats a lot of Cadillacs and monster wreaths. I guess the flames are not hot enough, the way they are in commercial crematoriums in the US, to burn up the bones, so the next day the family comes back to sift through the ashes for them. They then take these to a wat for burial, though some people keep a bone or tooth to hang on a necklace as a charm. If any gold or precious stones turn up, it is considered a gift from the deceased to the finder. A few posts ago I titled In the End is my Beginning.  I took it from a TS Eliot poem since it fit the occasion of one year transforming into another, but it was the venerable Mary Queen of Scots who first uttered it, just before they chopped her head off. I suppose it had a political meaning, since her martyrdom would increase her reputation, but primarily she meant it to speak to her faith in beginning something better or at least different. I really wanted to stay and keep watching, but my ride was leaving. In the end it was just this young boy and I interested in looking into the flames as she made her journey from flesh to heat and light.

And then his attention turned elsewhere as well,

and it was only me and the ubiquitous blue chairs.


  1. That was a little different than around here.

    Wats in this area have a crematorium with a very tall and spindly chimney; and I am pretty sure the fire is at night without all the personal effects.

    The service is basically the same.

    There is a good chance those "younger monks" were what I call monks for a day. Part of the tradition is that family members shave their head and wrap in the saffron robs; the women don't have to shave and wear white.

    PS: At the expense of sounding picky: the wood you refer to as mahogany (which I think comes from the Brazilian Rain Forest) is more likely teak.

  2. With over 10 years in professional cabinetmaking and yacht carpentry, you would think I would remember the difference between teak and mahogany, geez!