Donald Burt Newman (1931-2007), RIP
We were sad to hear that a good friend of ours had passed away after losing a long battle with cancer. Naturally we wanted to attend the funeral to pay our last respects, but we had never been to a funeral in Thailand before and had no idea what to expect. A friend advised us to wear black or white, or a combination of both, but other than that we had very little information.
Neither of us had a black or white suit but we wore smart suits in neutral colours, which we thought would at least be respectful. As it turned out, we were the only ones wearing suits, although a few of the women wore black dresses. Almost everyone else was in casual clothes, albeit with at least one black garment – polo shirts, or whatever – combined with other coloured clothes.
Our neighbour from across the street, Kent – who was also a good friend of Don’s – had kindly offered to give us a lift to the funeral, which was to be held at the big wat (temple) some distance away, as he knew we’d no transport of our own. We gratefully accepted.
We’d been told that the funeral would start at 1400. Kent had no more idea than we had of how things would proceed, so we left early to avoid the possibility of turning up late because of a traffic jam or whatever. As it turned out we got to the wat at around 1345. We were among the first farang (foreigners) there, although some Thai friends were already there and were looking after guests as they arrived.
We were offered chairs and then we sat around a round white plastic table chatting. While we were waiting, one of the Thai ladies came and tied a red thread around our wrist, which we were to keep on until we got home. Someone told us later that it was to stop Don’s spirit from following us home! We were also offered water or Pepsi to drink. (Perhaps alcohol isn’t allowed inside the wat compound.)
Pon, who had been Don’s common-law wife for many years, invited us up to the “altar”, and helped us through the process of paying our last respects. The Thais knew that we didn’t know how to go about things and guided us through everything in a gentle and helpful way. Most Thais really are lovely people – it’s no wonder that so many westerners choose to live in their country.
Don’s body was (not in view) in a large and very ornate box, decorated with flashing lights – the kind you’d expect to see on a Christmas tree. There was a large portrait of Don at the altar too (considerably younger than when we knew him!) – a happy, smiling picture of him as a young man. We went through the ritual – take a joss stick, perform a wai (a Thai gesture of respect – a neck-bow with folded hands), kneel, light joss stick, wai again, plant joss stick in bowl of sand, pray/meditate/remember Don, wai, up and out.
There were several rows of plastic seats near the altar but few people were using them. Most of us stayed sitting around the table outside. Then we found out that the cremation wasn’t until 1600. So this was like an extra “visitation” (between 1700 and 1800 on the three preceding days, Don’s body had been brought out for family and friends to pay respects and for the monks to chant prayers to prepare his spirit for departure).
We weren’t too sure if we were expected to sit doing nothing for two hours or what. We decided to go for a “walk”. We did ask Kent and Brian if they fancied nipping out for a swift one, but neither did. We felt a little bit guilty, but sure Don would have approved of our evasive manoeuvres. Larry, another friend, said later that he wished he’d known what we were up to as he would’ve come too – and Don would definitely have approved!
At this stage it might be as well to describe the wat compound for those who’ve never been to such a place. It’s pretty large: perhaps 150 metres square. Besides the main temple building itself, the monks’ quarters and various administrative buildings, there is a smaller sub-compound in one corner. On two sides of the courtyard there are two ceremonial halls where the monks perform their rites; on the third there’s a large storeroom; and in the middle of the courtyard is a small building containing a furnace, the door of which is at the top of a flight of about eight steps.
We got back to the wat, about 45 minutes later, to find six Rescue workers had turned up. (Rescue workers perform a role very similar to the one that the fire brigade do at the scene of accidents – getting trapped people free, giving them paramedical treatment and so on). They were sitting, eating, reading newspapers etc. About twenty to four, they wheeled a very ornate trolley out of a side shed. They then took Don’s body out of the “altar” on a body-length sling and placed it in an ornate box, with a loose-fitting lid on top.
Monks then appeared and took up station in front of the trolley. The box was put on the trolley, and a long string attached to the front of box was held by the monks (and others could hold it too), who “pulled” the trolley, although it was the Rescue workers who really moved it. Meanwhile, Don’s widow and brother led the procession; she carried his photograph while his brother carried a bowl with a large joss stick.
We followed the trolley three times round the furnace building, then round to the front of it. The box was lifted up the steps and placed on a table across the front of the furnace door. By now we were were all seated in rows directly facing the furnace door.
Some of the principal guests, such as Don’s family, were in turn called up the steps, and given a bundle of offerings (including a monk’s robe and a number of white paper flowers on sticks) to place in front of the box. The family members would then be given some of the paper flower sticks and would move to one side. A monk would then come up the side steps to the front of the box, chant a prayer while an attendant held a golden fan-like object between him and the box, and then take away the bundle minus the remaining paper flower sticks.This happened seven or eight times in all.
After that, the remaining flower sticks were distributed to everyone who didn’t have one, and we were all invited to the top of stairs to place them in front of the box and say a last goodbye to Don (although his body wasn’t on display). We all then went back down the stairs, apart from Don’s closest family members, who stood in front of the box while a photograph was taken.
Suddenly there was a commotion as a shower of small objects clattered down onto the courtyard ground. What were they? Sweets? Firecrackers? As the children scrambled for them, Chris went and picked one up. It turned out that they were one-baht coins wrapped in gold paper.
Then someone came round with a basket of souvenir keyrings, each bearing an image of the much revered King Chulalongkorn, who enjoys saint-like status as the king who did so much to modernise Thailand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
At last it was time for the cremation itself, and we were all warned to stand clear of the part of the courtyard directly in front of the furnace. (The soul leaves that way.) The body was placed into the furnace, and at that point people started leaving. By about quarter past four the whole ceremony was over.
All in all it was a strange occasion for us. In some ways it was much more matter-of-fact than most British funerals, with less obvious mournfulness, and with no-one apparently thinking it was out-of-place to take photographs. In others, though, there was more ceremony than we expected, and we found some of the customs hard to understand – although many of the Thais present who came from elsewhere in the country said that they’d never attended a funeral like it before either.