On Attending a Stranger’s Funeral in Thailand

Thai monks always remind me of Discworld wizards, vaguely comical, and either morbidly obese or so body-horror sinewy you wonder whether their organs are still on the inside.

“My dear, you have black dress?” My heart sank. Nina’s English can be a little cryptic at times. She couldn’t mean did I have a black dress; was she inquiring whether I was clairvoyant enough to know she needed hers? I really wasn’t in the mood for code-breaking. The night, it seemed, obliged us to attend a stranger’s funeral. I hastily donned black shirt and trouser, tried to inhibit my cynicism and dutifully fought my way out into the oven hot Thai night.  

I was to be the token foreigner at the funeral. There was the predictable laugh and joke at my expense when I got to the COVID-19 checkpoint: the bald farang should put antibac on his head! Boing! Silly comedy noise on the soundtrack. Smile. Pretend to be amused and laugh along. I had to bend down so the lady with the temperature scanner could reach the side of my head. I climbed over the mountain of shoes in the doorway that offended my health and safety spider-sense and went inside.

Buddhist temples at night are the oddest places, cheap red garden chairs abound, structural columns painted a faux gold and plastic Buddhas all illuminated by stark white strip lights. No mood lights, no atmosphere just bold naked white lights. Floral tributes to the deceased stood in front of small shrine behind which were several unboxed Beko refrigerators. Music played via a USB plugged into DVD player plugged into a Heath Robinson assemblage of wooden boards and frayed cables covered in decades of grime and dust. Everything was open to the air and there were as many stray dogs present as mourners.

We waited for some time for an even number of monks to arrive; they sat on a raised dais after performing some half-arsed supplications to a lunchbox-quality Buddha image. Thai monks always remind me of Discworld wizards, vaguely comical, and either morbidly obese or so body-horror sinewy you wonder whether their organs are still on the inside. The most rotund had a fold-back clip holding his robes in place. The windows behind them were covered by a hanging carpet and several pink children’s blankets. The call and response chanting began, which was oddly relaxing apart from the distortion everytime the lead monk rocked too close to the microphone. Everybody made the Wai and got into their spiritual groove.   

The deceased’s family sat on heavy wooden chairs in front of the monks through the first set of chanting. The monks held what looked like ceremonial fly swotters in front of their faces. As the number of voices in the spiritual chorus raised to four, ceremonial offerings were placed in front of the monks and four family members got on their hands and knees in devotion.  In contrast to the Hindu cremation Nina and I had spectated at in Kathmandu, there was no wailing, no gnashing of teeth and no deathly pallid hands sticking out comically from under shrouds. The whole event took at most twenty minutes and was conducted with the sort of stiff upper lip reserve my Englishness approves of. Nina said the ceremony was cut short due to the lateness of the hour.

Feeling that this anti-climax lacked the grandeur an anonymous cancer victim deserved, I stood back while the departing mourners, Nina and her work colleagues, took selfies and group photos. The deceased raised no objection to this accounting of his life totalling only a co-worker’s status update. The futility of life, social media and cancer fully-measured, the living went for KFC. 

May your death go viral.

Published by Lee Russell Wilkes

Been bouncing around the world for a while taking photos. Like most people, I have gone to ground during the pandemic. Decided it was time to put some of them out in the world.

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