Monday, February 15, 2010

a death in the family

So I've been to a few funerals since being here, but yesterday my neighbor (a teacher at one of my schools and a house I've eaten dinner at more than a few times) 's mother died. This didn't come as a huge shock as she was 92 and her health had been failing for some time. Anyhow, I am now in the process of developing a better understanding of the Thai funeral and Thai attitudes towards death in general. (People have asked me quite a few times how the Thai funeral compares to an American one, I respond by saying that I've never been to an American funeral, but because America is a melting pot of cultures, religions and whatnot, there isn't exactly a standard)

Anyhow, the first and most striking difference is that at Thai funerals, people don't "grieve." I think I've mentioned before (but I'll do so again) that in Thai, the word "serious" is a bad thing, and if people do their best to be "no serious." This applies to death as well. I'm sure the advanced age of the deceased and that it wasn't terribly shocking helps put people at ease, but even at funerals for relatively young people I've been to, I haven't really seen any great outpouring of bereavement.

I don't, however, want to imply that this funeral was a wild party with karaoke and dancing girls.

When I arrived yesterday evening there were only a handful of people there (yesterday was the first of four days). I greeted my neighbor and was taken into the house to wai the buddha figure and the deceased (there was a photo of her and incense and flowers to "offer" to her, I think the body was in a casket buried under flowers, but I'm not sure). Then I sat outside with some other people who had showed up. And things were pretty mellow. People asked me about what kinds of Thai food I can eat, my girlfriend, my age (pretty typical stuff) and other conversations seemed pretty comparable. The only way to tell that this event was different than others was that (most) people were dressed in black and white (though dark jeans and t-shirts were pretty common). More people arrived, snacks were had, and eventually a group of monks showed up. The monks did a series of chanting prayers, people wai-ing while they chanted, though many conversations continued through it, and nobody shushed the kids who were playing and trying to get me to talk to them. Then people sat and talked for a while, then started going home. When I walked back to my house there was a group of men drinking and gambling.

This morning I went over before school and ate rice soup with a group of people.

Anyway, as far as belief-y type stuff, it's important for the family of the deceased to give lots of things away (make donations) in response to a death. The belief being that everything that they give away, the deceased will have in the afterlife (so the make donations and gifts of food, clothes, refrigerators, gazebo-type things called "sala"s. I'm under the impression that the next few days will be similar, and I've heard that food, drinking and gambling will be more prominent (or maybe that depends on what time I arrive).

All in all, it's pretty interesting stuff, and I really like the choice to essentially honor the deceased's life and try to make them comfortable in the afterlife rather than mourning their death.


P.S. Completely unrelated, but I meant to mention it a while ago in a random blog post I never made, but my family here is genuinely afraid that if they close the windows and turn off the air conditioning in the car, they will die of suffocation. I tried explaining that this was not the case, as when it is cold in America and we don't open the windows or have the fan on, we don't die. They said that's because American cars are different from Thai cars. That was while we were driving in their Isuzu. I just thought it was amusing, and slightly annoying on the mornings when it's actually kinda cold here.

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