I attended my first funeral in Thailand, unfortunately a relative of a close friend passed away.
It was a Buddhist funeral and took place in a large Wat in Bangkok. What we would consider as the viewing will last for 7 days, each evening groups of friends and family come to pay respect to the deceased. The casket was placed in a small room with folding chairs setup outside the room, in the open air. To pay your respect to the deceased you removed your shoes, entered the room, bowed and said a prayer in front of the casket, lit some incense, dropped to your knees, said another prayer and then exited the room to sit outside in the chairs.
Beautiful wreaths of flowers were everywhere, lining the inside of the room, the outside of the room and the entire area where the chairs were setup. Each wreath had the name of the person or company that have the wreath. You could also provide a cash donation that would be given to a charity.
There was no formal line to pay respect, as people came they entered the room, paid their respects, found a chair outside and chatted with each other. The family of the deceased had chairs in the small room with the casket, there was also a small platform for the monks.
After people had paid their respects and when the chairs were filled, 4 monks entered the small room and sat on the small platform. The eldest of the monks chanted and lead 3 sets of lessons and prayers; a boxed dinner was handed out to everyone after the second round of chants and prayers. Everyone ate the dinner and talked for around 10 minutes before the final lesson and prayer.
At the conclusion of the lessons and prayers the monks were given offerings and gifts by the family of the deceased. Family members and close friends approached the monks and were given a quick prayer by the monks. The monks stood, left and the ceremony was over.
Other funerals, identical to the one I attended, were taking place throughout the Wat. Flowers and chairs setup facing small rooms with a casket.
Many things struck me in observing the funeral. As my Thai is still poor, I could not follow what the Monks said or what people were discussing in the seats. My friend was telling me what was happening, but the ability to observe without understanding allowed me a unique vantage point and freed my mind to just see what was happening without having to interpret and follow.
What struck me was that there was no crying, people wore white shirts and were respectful, but not downtrodden. Kids had come from school, still dressed in their school uniforms and thoroughly enjoyed the dinner that was served. As I was told and have come to learn, death in Buddhism is not viewed in the same as death in the Western religions. In the Western world we work to stave off death and do not talk about death; it is a sad event that dominates our thoughts and conversations as we age. The opposite happens in Buddhism, death is address in the teachings and is something to be learned from.
A funeral is not a place of crying and sadness. It is the acknowledgment that someone had died, and that we will all die (that was part of the teaching of the monks at the funeral); a time to appreciate what someone meant to others, but not feel sorrow for their death.
Almost two weeks have passed since the funeral, I have struggled to write this blog and express what I observed and how it has made me feel. Each day I have thought about the approach to death as more of fact and something that will happen, rather than something sad that you try and avoid.
I have been surprised at the impact the funeral, the thought and logic about death in Buddhism has had on me. I went to the funeral feeling sad for the loss my friend and their family had suffered, I didn’t expect such a thought provoking experience.