Birth. Aging. Illness. Death. This is the natural pattern for all living things. If you were never born, you’d never get old. If you’re never ill, you’ll never die. If you don’t want to die, then you shouldn’t be born. However, we’re not all saints and most of us will probably be fated to experience the life cycle again according to our deeds (good and bad) in the present life.
In Thai society, Thais of every background and lineage have various customs concerning birth and death. These customs depend on the system of beliefs practiced in each area. If you believe, you will practice that belief and the practicing of that belief becomes a tradition. With this thought, we will look into the beliefs concerning death held by the Thai people of the Southern Issan region. We will especially look into the traditions of the people who live in the border regions, most of who are a mixed society with Cambodian or Kuai ethnicities.
When someone dies, the funeral director/arranger will preserve the corpse for two or three days before cremation, so as to have time to make merit for the deceased. (It may be more or less time than this according to the situation.)
The body of the deceased is placed in a trunk or coffin and kept in the home in order for parents, siblings, relatives and friends to come pay their last respects. Also for them to come take part in merit making ceremonies according to their religious beliefs- both Brahmin and Buddhist. Another reason for keeping the corpse is to wait for distant relatives to arrive and take part in the funeral rituals and to see the body of their deceased loved one one last time. It’s seen as a last family gathering for the deceased before cremation or burial.
During this period of time before the burial or cremation, it is the duty of the visiting relatives to bring relief to the grieving family. To encourage them, to care for them and to be a comfort to them especially in the long, desolate nights when loneliness and grief can feel unbearable.
The local villagers and neighbors also will not forsake the grieving family. Everyone is aware of what is going on. Everyone is in it together. A funeral is one event that shouldn’t be avoided or shirked.
Going to a funeral can be seen as a great opportunity to make merit. The practice of going to a funeral is in itself most likely a virtuous act. Some people who have held grudges with relatives for years find reconciliation at a funeral. Meeting at a funeral, they are able to see the damage caused by anger and the futility of grudges, thus bringing about sympathy and reconciliation. If we refuse to empathize and aid one another in the times when we need help, are sick or dying, then, when will we help each other? Going to a funeral also forces us to face the fact that we and all things which have life, must someday die. There’s no need to waste time fearing it, being anxious about it or torturing ourselves over it.
However, there are some who stubbornly hold a grudge and continue to be angry with others until it is too late. “Until the spirit is released and the corpse is burned,” so to speak. Only then do they finally let it go. This is regarded as a sin and, rest assured, will be the negative karma of the stubborn, grudge-holding party.
Village funerals allow us to see the relationship between the villagers as they gather to help the family of the deceased. They bring objects such as money, food and fruit to participate in ceremonies, so the host family is not left bearing too many responsibilities alone. Even if the host family is of a position to not need any material support, it is seen as a opportunity to do good for the soul of the deceased. For families who are poor and in need, merit is certainly made by this material support from the neighbors. The generosity which the villagers have for each other will strengthen the community and will be a source of stability for it in the future.
As for the various duties involved in arranging a funeral, the host family actually doesn’t have to do very much. The neighbors will help with making the casket and decorating it with lovely paper decorations as appropriate with the rank and dignity of the deceased and his family. The undertaker will see to arranging the ceremonies before the deceased is even placed in the coffin. Monks are invited to come and pray. People with free time will go tell folks in other neighboring villages about the funeral. In times past there were no “funeral cards” to send out to people and no telephones either. Now days, news of a funeral can be spread all over and very quickly too. Some folks will go to cut firewood to be used in the cremation ceremony. Others will be responsible for greeting guests. Others will do kitchen work; cooking, serving, cleaning, etc. Cigarettes, betel and candles are prepared in advance. Everyone pitches in to do a little something. Persons who have nothing else to do, may go sit in the home of the deceased and be a charitable comfort to the host family. The middle of the night is an especially important time as the host will need to have people nearby to help keep vigil over the body.
After the religious ceremonies are done, the chanting is finished and the monks have left, the host is still in need of someone to stay and keep him/her company. The elders gather together and chat in groups. The youngsters, however, will invite each other to stay overnight for the “Ngan Huan Dee”.
In this word “Ngan Huan Dee”, we have the word “ngan” which refers a celebration put on to cheer people up. To mitigate the sorrows of the grieving. The words “huan dee” refer to encouraging and supporting the family of the deceased. The true focus of this “ngan,” this celebration of sorts, is to keep the family and friends of the deceased from sorrowing too much or too long.
If amplifiers and speakers are available, local songs, Mor Lam songs, Luk Tung songs and Toranee Kan Saeng songs will be played. For folks out in the provincial areas Toranee Kan Saeng songs are not very popular, because they have a rather sad sounding melody that just makes the mood feel rather dismal. A funeral is seen as a normal part of life for them, not something that should steep us in sadness. No need to wear black. No need to stand in mourning. No need to give wreathes of flowers. This is true even for the people who were very close to the deceased. Therefore, this “party” (ngan) is set-up and carried out a little differently, according to the customs and traditions of the area it is held in.
At the ngan, village youth who enjoy singing have the chance to show off their singing skills and can compete in singing Luk Tung songs. These “funeral celebrations” can also be an excellent opportunity for young boys and girls to meet. Love may well be the result of meeting at a funeral party.
Besides singing, there is also a type of game that is played. In the Kuai language it is called “Klaybee”. It is played by taking a coin and applying a white paste to one side. It is then used to play a heads-or-tails type of coin flipping game. Players are divided into two groups (sometimes it’s males vs. females) and articles such as necklaces, rings, bracelets, watches, sashes, handkerchiefs, and other small valuables are readied as prizes. Money is not used as a prize, as this would be considered gambling. When the game is over, the prizes are returned to their original owners. It’s a fitting game for a funeral. Played just for fun and recreation. Nothing serious. Just something to pass the time and dispel loneliness.
The prizes may be returned immediately by some, but other young boys and girls prefer to keep them as mementos. The girls are especially notorious for keeping the prizes a little longer than the boys, in order to force the male party to come to her house and ask for it back later. It may be the start of a lifelong relationship!
These events are called Ngan Huan Dee by the people of the Issan region. I’m not sure what name they are given in other areas or exactly how the celebrations are carried out as it varies from region to region.
The traditional carrying out of a Ngan Huan Dee is ever developing and changing with each generation. Time, custom, tradition and location all play a part in this change. But, presently, no matter where the funeral celebration is held- whether in or outside the big city- one thing remains the same. The inclusion of gambling.
Just as soon as the the monks have finished chanting, refreshments have been given them and they rise to return to the temple, the gambling begins. Cards are dealt, Hi-Lo is played, etc. Groups are formed and the gambling goes on for long hours, until players are bleary eyed and can’t remember who’s come out on top and who’s not. Participants may even form drinking groups and pass the night away drinking liquor. With riotous activities such as this to pass the time, there’s nothing sad about a funeral at all! Even funerals that are held at holy times of year or set-up in the vicinity of a temple are like this. Local law enforcement just turns a blind eye to it all. Perhaps they see it as a necessity for the grieving party, to have people close by and activities to take part in so as not be left sad and lonely by himself.
But it may be a different story for the soul of the deceased. Imagine if he was able to come back and visit his own funeral. He may be appalled! Seeing some friends and family bickering over money lost in gambling, the stressed looks on some people’s faces as they anxiously eye the cards in their hands, and seeing some get in drunken brawls… it certainly wouldn’t be a pleasant sight for him!
So, funeral parties in this day and age aren’t like the authentic Ngan Huan Dee celebrations of times past. Perhaps strictly for the reason that gambling and drinking are involved.
The lovely customs of the provincial people have really all but vanished these days, haven’t they?