Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, July 31, 2017

Lessons Gleaned From The Dead

On a recent trip to the family homestead in Bangkok for my aunt’s cremation I scramble to find my Thai persona and my role if there was one as the family structure is reconfigured around the loss of her considerable leadership.

Evening Prayers

“How many people are expected for the funeral?” I asked Pong the daughter of my dear departed Aunty Ah Pahdt.

“At least 400”, she said. Yes, I had expected a large crowd too, but 400 was impressive. My aunt had been a leader in her women’s business community and much loved socially with a light hearted laugh that made everything seem easy and fun. She had died shockingly quickly everyone said. No one even suspected she was sick. Once diagnosed with liver cancer the disease took her in two months. She was only 76 so was survived by a large number of her peers. Three buildings  at the temple had been rented for all the guests.

The night before the cremation we gathered for the pre-cremation evening prayers. I went to the temple to help transport the coffin from one Sala (a small open sided building) to another. Seeing her coffin on a pedestal at the end of the room stopped me. Nothing so final as being in such a box. Or so lonely. She had been lying in it since February. Pong had chosen the 100 day mourning period for her as befitting her status. It had also allowed me time to plan my schedule so I could fly all the way to Bangkok for the event. 

The temple compound commanded a considerable piece of real estate in this high end area of Bangkok. Looming just beyond the orange tiled temple roofs was the cement structure of the Sky Train cutting through the visual space much as you would expect of the monorail at Disneyland. Several glassed in office buildings filled the rest of the sky. The temple compound was every bit as busy as the bustle outside for the dead still needed to be honored as befitted tradition. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

The family was required to accompany the deceased whenever she was moved. Thus we walked in a procession followed by her white and gold coffin on an ornate gold and red cart pushed by male attendants who did all the heavy lifting as well. Pong gave me Ah Pahdt’s framed photo to carry and I followed her brother Thop who carried the lamp that had been kept lit at the side of the coffin. An elder monk led the procession walking briskly through the temple compound between dozens of other funereal buildings. 

Once the coffin was carried into the larger Sala the attendants set about bringing in the numerous flower bouquets and laying out the religious paraphernalia for the monks who would chant the evening service. Guests were arriving and performing the prayers of greetings so I took my turn, first kneeling at the foot of the Buddha statue to the left  and then kneeling in front of the coffin. I returned to my seat filled with a sense of emptiness and peripheral grief. I sat cross legged in meditation until this existential void wore off. Only a pair of nuns at the end of the row seemed to notice—Buddhist nuns in white robes. I opened my eyes to see before me my Ah Neung, the niece of my grandmother older than me by two years. She and her sister and I had played together as children. 

“Were you meditating?” she asked as she sat down next to me.
“Yes,” I said not wishing to say more. Ah Neung looked around the now crowded room and noted that there were no relatives of my Ah Padt. None were expected. Her mother had died a year ago with a mourning period of the briefest 7 days. (Three was the minimum to allow the spirit to leave the body.)

Pong, Ah Neung noted, had married into a very wealthy family. Yes I was eager to meet them. Her mother-in-law was noble born and had also started a packaged cookie business that had blossomed into a packaged food company and included the box fruit drinks being served that evening. It was this connection with the rich and high born that prompted me to review my outfit—a black v-neck t-shirt and a kilt I had made from fabric with a gross grain texture that was likely meant to line a bag; a belt with a large silver buckle of Celtic design and some simple silver disk earrings from Peru plus black flats. Luckily the protocol of mourning clothes was somewhat democratic discouraging flamboyant jewelry so I felt properly dressed even stylish in my own way. Pong had on yet another beautiful sheath dress; this one with flowers in the lace sleeves. Some of the outfits that were coming in were so sculptural in cut and design it gave the event a stylish modern look amidst so much black.  

I was a long way from my tiny house life. If they only knew how strange I really was. I had photos to show of the tiny house in a little photo album, the kind no one bothered with any more now that they all had smart phones. When I had gone to lunch with Ah Neung and her sister Nor I had shown them the photos. Upon realizing I had no real bathroom Nor announced that I was crazy which was something of a complement coming from Miss Prada whose silver sandals were so highly polished they looked like chrome. I had also shown the photos to the live-in staff at my house—Pryoon my maid since childhood and Wel my Aunty Lily’s maid. Their own rooms were bigger than the tiny house, though not by much; I wondered if they thought I had come so far down in the world I was now poor. But they could see I was so proud of my house they did not question why I lived there. Wel just asked if my stove being in a drawer could be closed when not in use. That was also one of my favorite features.

And there was a picture of me sitting on a meditation cushion inside the house which I had staged to show the relative size of the interior before I filled it with furnishings. Pong upon seeing it asked if I meditated, but made no other comment on my photos. She was still trying to figure out who I was now that it had come to her to negotiate with me as one of the four owners of the gated estate where we had both spent our childhood. No I would not try to show anyone else this strange life I led back in the U.S.

Soon the monks were assembling in a row on the raised platform.  They did their chanting and the congregation chimed in on the chorus. Then we were done. 

I had been invited to join Pong’s in-laws at their place for dinner afterwards. Their place turned out to be one of their restaurants, elegantly decorated with beveled glass, chandeliers and long drapes in a somber grey to mark the mourning of the King who had died last October and would lay in state for a year at the palace as befitting his status. Thus the entire kingdom seemed to be swathed in somber colors with the pubic largely dressed in black. I was glad to discover that his legacy of a sustainable economics through agriculture was finally being recognized and celebrated.

I sat at a table with my corresponding generation mostly Pong’s in-law siblings who readily introduced themselves to me in English. The children also spoke English to me with American accents as they were enrolled at the International School to further their business prospects. Had Ah Pahdt been there she would have introduced me to all the important elders sitting at their own table, but now such protocol seemed to have no place to land. Only after our meal of fusion Thai cuisine did the patriarch of the family come over to ask how my dinner was. Of course I said it was excellent then boldly told him I was reading his memoir (which had been given to me two years ago so I thought I'd better catch up on it on the plane). I asked how long it took him to write it. 

"Oh I didn't write it," he said, "I just did interviews; a ghost writer wrote it and my son edited it." Hmmm. My entire reading of the book shifted from intimate relationship with a writer to something more akin to a television broadcast and I could say no more on the topic. He asked again how the food was.

"Very beautifully presented," I said. Then as we all got up to leave, the matriarch herself came over to ask me who I was. I gave her the formal Thai wai of greeting with palms in prayer position, but she still wanted to take my hand. She was so gracious and her hands so soft I could appreciate that she was a true lady. My hands have the texture of sanded wood so much work did I do with them. I wonder if she noticed. She said she had wanted to meet me because she had noted the family resemblance between me and Pong. I was touched that this was significant enough to prompt her curiosity. She remembered my name the next day when she invited me to visit the elegant lunch buffet laid out at the temple for us as we waited for the cremation. 

Cremation Day

Referred to in Thai as the day we burn her, these proceedings took all day from the talk given by the monk in the morning to viewing the actual fire consuming the coffin. The day’s schedule included the feeding of the monks before noon offered on raised trays to the ten monks sitting on the platform. Then a nice long lunch for all of us giving plenty of time to visit. Plus we had royal patronage which meant more preparations and the sweeping of the site by a bomb squad and dogs. Apparently one of Ah Pahdt’s friends had connections and so was able to summon for her a Princess to light her funeral pyre. (Though she didn’t actually light it since it was a gas oven.) When I asked if this Princess would later be Queen, Well and Pryoon laughed. The Crown Prince was already on wife number three and this one was divorced long ago. But with all the events requiring royal personage no princess need be idle no matter her rank. A throne chair was placed in the largest and fanciest of the three buildings and red carpeting laid down. The immediate family was then coached on how to approach the princess. 

We occupied the time with official photographs in front of the coffin. Ah Padt’s son Thop made sure to include me in the family photos first with his family then with his sister’s family as well. The women having changed into the formal Thai long skirt and jacket. I had on a similar outfit I bought at a street market the day before for $30. The sleeves were not the requisite long sleeves, but no one commented on it. Pong’s husband and sons had on the white uniform associated with the palace for those who bore titles. 

Then the coffin was again placed on the red and gold cart and the family led the procession circling around the crematorium counterclockwise three times before the coffin was carried up the stairs and placed on a table in front of the oven to await the Princess. Finally she arrived with her entourage driving into the compound in cream colored Mercedes Benz. A giant traditional umbrella awaiting as she stepped out of the car. She climbed up to the coffin to do her official blessing then sat with the family as the entire congregation filed past the coffin up one set of stairs and down another.

The Lessons Of the Dead

By the third day of the funeral I had many questions. The day after we burned her we returned to the temple early for the ritual of the ashes. I was pleased to see the two nuns who had been at the service the first evening. One looked about my age and one younger. I asked if they knew my aunt and they explained that they had been Pong’s teachers when she became a nun for the traditional three month period. She had done this service following her father’s death. I asked them if I could ask some questions. They invited me to pull up a chair. Why was a meal served to the coffin every day? I asked. The elder nun told me that that was to show the people that the person was indeed dead no matter how long one knocked on the coffin. And that their body would not be able to partake in such pleasures again. And the knocking was indeed part of the ritual I had observed when the food was served. I asked about the lamp and she said this was to guide the spirit as one would use a lamp in a cave. She told me that the funeral ceremonies were more important than a marriage ceremony as it was a means to teach the people about impermanence and not to get too attached to things. It was also an opportunity to ask forgiveness of the deceased for any wrong doing, she said, in order to end any disputes. I began to see how this worked; that people were learning through death how to hold life lightly.

The ceremonies around the ashes were the most visceral of such death lessons. When we were allowed up to the crematorium Ah Padt’s ashes were laid out on a cloth and formed into a doll size figure. A startlingly, humbling vision this was. It made me feel naked to the bone looking at it. Monks came to chant and then the family decorated the ash figure with flower petals after which the attendants rolled the ashes up in a cloth and put the bundle in the urn. Then we all drove with the urn to the Gulf of Siam where a boat had been hired so we could drop the ashes in the ocean with flower petals and garlands thrown on the water to sweeten the send off. A stiff breeze blew our hair every which way along with our composure and I felt a sense of joy being on the water away from the hemmed in streets of the city and feeling more myself in my casual clothes.

Lunch was at another family restaurant. This one converted from the grandfather’s original house which was set over the water on pilings. I had my photo album along this time and showed it to Pong’s husband who worked for the World Bank representing Thai interests. He asked if I lived in this tiny house full time. I said yes, but explained that I had another house I could go to where I could hang out with my dogs. “I’m conducting an experiment to see how little I can use,” I told him. He seemed to understand my quest. It was after all similar to the King’s message of sustainable living to use as few resources as possible. Inspired by his message many Thais too were shifting their lifestyle to a smaller footprint I would learn later. Educated people, disillusioned by the corporate rat race, were leaving the city and buying a small piece of land to grow food using permaculture technology, They called these mini food forests “smart farms”. I was thrilled by this trend.

I had wanted to sit with the nun’s, but they did not eat after the noon hour as required by their vows so I joined them later to show them my tiny house photos. They perused the photos with interest. I told them the reason I liked my tiny house was because it was very easy to leave it, just lock the door and go. This seemed to prompt a response.

“You are living like a hermit,” pronounced the elder nun, “this is a good start for learning to let go of material things, plants, animals and people.” I was so intrigued by this perspective I did not interrupt though I had rather thought that the tiny house allowed me more time for plants, animals and people.

“It is very difficult to live as a hermit,” she said. “It can be lonely and forces you into contemplation.” Yes for a Thai being alone was to be avoided for fear of loneliness. But I loved the vision of the Hermit a familiar figure in Thai culture from childhood since he appeared as a character in the alphabet and was depicted wearing a tiger skin, sporting a long white beard and a jaunty little tiger skin hat. I had often wondered if he was mad, touched in the head. The nuns asked me how many meters wide and long my house was and compared it to their own living quarters nodding their approval.

Suddenly the elder nun poked my arm in a familiar way and said “Do you know how to leave your body?” 

“No,” I said thinking she was referring to an out of body experience. She explained that in meditation I could learn to leave my body which would make it easier to leave it when the body died. Then I would be reincarnated and each time it would be easier and easier to leave my body until finally I wouldn’t need a body. 

“Yes you get off the wheel of Samsara,” I said recognizing this concept. The phrase was familiar as this was a goal many an ambitious American Buddhist would tell me they were aiming for in their practice. As a writer I was certainly spending my time in the tiny house in contemplation of my life. And when it came down to it I was in essence ascribing to a certain spiritual practice in using only as much as I needed and more telling — disposing of my own bodily waste back to the land. Many thought I was touched in the head to want to do this part, even tiny house people. So yes — I was a slightly mad hermit, an eco monk. 

Finally I had a context for my tiny lifestyle in the Thai cultural experience. One that would set me outside of the status symbols of my high society relatives and the business priorities of money yet still be considered acceptable. I noted that I was the only person eager to speak to the nuns, but that too was befitting of my singular quest. It was all falling into place. My tiny house was a hermitage. My role was to contemplate my inner life, write down my revelations and dispense them to any who would listen. I was more than ok with that. 

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At 10:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Very good. You are right: Thais really know how to do up death in a grand way. Interesting telling of this passage. Liked the line about you feeling naked to the bone when seeing flower formation of Ah Padht's ashes.
Liked your bond with the nuns and your own sense of contented solitary self in humble but happy hermit home.


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