Just east of India and surrounded by Myanmar, Loas, and Cambodia sits the rich country of Thailand. This tropical climate boasts beautiful beaches, colorful marketplaces and breathtaking landscapes. One thing you won’t find on any tourist websites is a run-down of their funeral customs. Don’t worry, that’s why we’re here.
Thailand does not have a state religion, but most residents (including the King) are Buddhist. The other major religion is Hinduism, and both cultures have unique funeral traditions. Monks are relied on to chant the sutras that are believed to benefit the dead in the next life. In Buddhism, life is considered a trial of suffering, and death is the end of that suffering. Buddhist memorials (and services) are resigned affairs, with a general sense of mourning and sadness.
After death the body goes through a ritualistic washing of one hand. Then the body is laid in a coffin surrounded by colored lights, wreaths, pictures, and scented candles. Normally cremation in Thailand is scheduled 3 days after death. While the body is on display, friends and family come by nightly to feast and play card games. The day cremation is scheduled, the body is removed from the home by monks who do a chant as they carry the casket from the home. In Thailand, the coffin is placed on a pyre of bricks and the guests each bring lighted torches, branches, or candles to contribute to the pyre. The incense and aromatic woods used in this ceremony are strong. The last neighborhood gathering takes place on the night after the final cremation.
It is believed that as long as the body is present, the gifts and chants offered to the dead can benefit them in the afterlife. It is for this reason that especially revered and famous people are often preserved for cremation for up to a year. That way, more religious chants and sutras can be offered to better their status after death. If you’re invited to a Thai Buddhist funeral, be aware that they can last for a very long time. It is not necessary or expected for you to attend all of the services, but the last cremation service is the most important to attend.
Thailand also has a strong Hindu population. Both Buddhists and Hindis believe that the manner of your cremation affects your status when leaving this life. Hindis believe in reincarnation, and in Thailand they often participate in a double cremation to more fully purify the body. They cremate the body and then burn the bones at a second cremation. It is believed the holier you are, the more likely you are to escape the cycle of rebirth and achieve nirvana. In Thailand death is often considered a migration to heaven. Even the position of the body as it is being cremated is considered, because the transition from death to rebirth or death to nirvana is so direct.
This beautiful place with its amalgamation of religions and cultures gives life to traditions both ancient and modern. Funerals often encapsulate our priorities as a culture, which is why it’s so important to learn about how others celebrate death!