Elaborate Cremation Ceremony Celebrates The Life Of A Thai Monk

Eat, Pray, Blast Off: Protocol Of A Thai Monk’s Funeral

“Grandma Vicki, we must wear white clothes to the monk’s cremation. OK?”

Well, no.

We were in Phayao, Thailand, visiting a dear Thai friend who’d invited me to attend a cremation ceremony for a local head monk. And, now we were getting ready for the drive to a small wat (Buddhist monastery) near her ancestral village for the big event.

I’d been told about the cremation before traveling to Phayao and had packed black for the event: Thais wears black and/or white to funerals. But now I’m told “white only” for this one.

Mai pen rai!” said my friend. (No problem, easy to fix.) We drove to a local superstore where I was thrilled to find an extra-extra-large white blouse to fit my Western-sized body. It was important to me to wear the right clothes to honor the monk, my friend’s family, and her village. Suspecting I’d be the only Westerner there (as it turned out, I was), I wanted to dress like everyone else.

On the appointed day, we drove to the small, mountain monastery. The deceased monk had served six nearby villages for decades. Hundreds of villagers had arrived long before we did to attend the solemn goodbye. We had to park far from the site, behind farm trucks and motorcycles.

As we walked up the narrow road to the wat, a cacophony of Thai funeral music and the emcee’s announcements over a loudspeaker assailed our ears. As we got to the entrance, I pulled out my camera to start taking photos.

“Not yet,” my friend said. “First we must pay our respects to the monk.”

We bought a small packet of kindling and incense. We slipped off our shoes and offered the packet at the temporary shrine. Behind the shrine, rested the ornamental funeral chariot holding the monk’s coffin.

Before I had time to take many photos, my friend whisked me to our next stop, the lunch tent. Villagers had prepared gallons of spicy curries, flavorful soups, fried meat, and rice (both sticky and steamed). An early lunch had been served a couple of hours before we arrived, but there was still plenty of food for us and other latecomers.

After eating, we found a seat under a canopy, near my friend’s mother and sister, to protect us from the sun or the rain. Women sat together in one area, men in another. During the next several hours, we listened to prayers, speeches, and more while watching the elaborate preparations for the burning. Children ran here, there, and everywhere. Between prayers, people chatted with their neighbors and attended to the children. Folks constantly came around to offer us cold water, sweet fruit drinks, coffee, and ice cream. I had the sense of being at a company picnic or large family reunion.

At last, the momentous final act began. First came a short dance ceremony. Then, many monks—and even more lay people—made their final prayers and offerings. Designated helpers removed the temporary shrine and placed flammable items, not meant for burning, far from the funeral chariot.

We all waited with quiet anticipation.

Suddenly, firecrackers, skyrockets, and whistling bottle rockets exploded all around. Specially designed pyrotechnics ignited. Colored smoke and sparkling lights enveloped the chariot. We heard a mysterious low, moaning sound. Finally, the chariot with the coffin burst into flames. Firemen sprayed water to keep flames under control. Everyone snapped photos as the all-consuming flames burned hotter and hotter, higher and higher.

It was over. We ate our soup (a final offering of comfort), said our goodbyes, and walked down the hill for home.

Vicki Terhorst

P.S. Thailand is just one of the countries we’ll tell you about at the upcoming Retire Overseas Conference, coming up later this summer in Nashville, Tennessee. More details on this once-a-year event, here.

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