Author Archives: Katie Wongthipkongka

Funeral Rituals – Thailand

Thai Funeral Rituals

Traditionally, a Thai funeral lasts anywhere between one to seven days. It can be up to seven consecutive days to provide opportunities for relatives, family, and friends to attend and pay their respects. Thai people also believe that the soul leaves the body after three to seven days after the death, and the deceased finally realizes that they have died already. The body is placed in an open casket at the funeral dressed in nice clothes to make them look good. Usually, the person is dressed in either Thai traditional clothing or in one of their favorite outfits. This choice of clothing is to please the deceased so they will move on happily and look good when they move on and so the person will not have to return for any clothes.

Also, a bowl is placed underneath the hands of the body because there is a traditional water blessing. The water blessing is when each person attending the funeral pours a small amount of water onto the hands of the deceased. This symbolizes forgiveness and cleansing. When a person pours the water on the hands it is like asking the deceased to forgive them for any wrongs done or any disagreements between the two of them in life. It is also just to pay respect and say final good-byes.

Once the attendees have done the water blessing, they sit down. The closest family members to the deceased sits in the front row to physically symbolize the close relationship to the deceased. Then, several monks chant a prayer specific for funerals. The chanting is unanimous among the monks and sounds quite musical and soothing. The attendees sit silently listening with their hands together for prayer. The chanting of the monks is a prayer to send the soul of the deceased to a better place or to wherever the person wants to go. After the chanting, the monk with the most seniority gives a eulogy, but the eulogy does not focus on the deceased person necessarily. It focuses more on life in general. It is up to the monk what he decides to talk about, but it is usually life lessons and thoughts for life.

Then, when the monk is done talking, food is provided for the guests.  It is a way to thank the guests for attending the funeral and also a time for the people to mingle and talk about old times. There is a variety of foods such as soups, fruit, and desserts. Except no noodles. It is believed that if there are noodles people will die following each other in a line like the lines of the noodles. Other people in the family will follow the dead person.

Everyone is supposed to wear black to the funeral because of mourning. The close family members continue to wear black clothes for one hundred days following the death. After the last day of funerals, the body gets cremated. Some people are buried or other things, but usually with Buddhists, they are cremated. Then, also usually with Buddhists, the bones and ashes are thrown into a river or ocean or any body of water. The cremation and allowing the bones and ashes to float in a body of water symbolizes reverting back to nature. We came from nature, the four elements – wind, water, earth, fire – when we die we return to nature.

My mother explained these funeral traditions and beliefs that she has learned growing up in Thailand. She has attended several funerals like this in her own lifetime. Just a few years ago she flew out to Thailand to organize her father’s, my grandpa’s, funeral. There are some differences with traditional funerals in Thailand and the ones in America. For example, in Thailand the open casket with the body is usually at every day of the funeral. Whereas in America, it is usually there only the first day because it has to be given to the crematory so they can prepare for the cremation. Also, the funeral in Thailand seems to be more extravagant with more monks, more people, and more food. However, this may be because there are more relatives, friends, monks, and resources located in Thailand.

Recently my mother also had to organize a funeral for her husband, my dad. All of the traditions described were included in the funeral. The funeral lasted three days, there was a water blessing on the first day, everyone wore black, monks chanted each day, there was food each day, his body was cremated, and we will be taking a trip to Thailand this summer to throw his bones and ashes into a river that all of our deceased relatives are thrown.

Thai funeral rituals and traditions are very different compared to the Irish wakes discussed in Ilana Harlow’s piece “Practical Jokes and the Revival of the Dead in Irish Tradition.” The Irish focus more on celebrating the life of the deceased, and the funerals include dancing, drinking, and pranks. Traditional Thai funerals are more somber and focus on paying respects to the deceased. However, the guests reminisce about times past with the deceased and reunite with many people that they have not seen or contacted in an extended period of time. Although there is the sorrowful aspect of the funeral, there is also the social aspect for those in attendance.

Narvaez, Peter. Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture. Pg. 83-112. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2003.

Legend – Chaiyaphum, Thailand

The Legend of Mae Nak

There was a couple in ancient times named P’ Mak and Mae Nak. P’ Mak was a soldier and had to go to war. He lost communication with Mae Nak for a really long time. During that time, Mae Nak was pregnant. Both Mae Nak and her son died in labor. Everybody in the town knew that Mae Nak died. Only P’ Mak didn’t know. P’ Mak came home from war and saw Mae Nak and their baby and was very happy. Everybody told him that Mae Nak and their baby died already, but P’ Mak didn’t believe them until one day Mae Nak was cooking som tum and dropped a lemon through the cracks of the wooden planks of the upper floor to the bottom floor, where P’ Mak was standing at the time. P’ Mak saw Mae Nak reach her arm from the top to the bottom floor to pick up the lemon. Now P’ Mak believed everyone that told him that Mae Nak died already. Mae Nak loved P’ Mak so much that she used all of her power to stay as a human and take care of her husband. P’Mak was scared and called witch doctors to help take away Mae Nak. None succeeded until one witch doctor came that was very skilled. This witch doctor was able to put Mae Nak’s spirit in a clay pot and seal the top with white linen tied tight with white thread and threw it in the river.

One day, a man was fishing and pulled up the net and saw the pot. The man wondered what was inside the pot and opened it. As soon as the man opened the pot, Mae Nak’s spirit came out and came back to haunt the town because Mae Nak was very mad that she was caught and thrown in the river. Mae Nak returned home and P’ Mak would hear her call his name “P’ Mak kaaa! P’ Mak kaaa!!” The people in the town have a statue of Mae Nak and still worship her today.

My mother remembers learning this story in her elementary school in Chaiyaphum, Thailand where she grew up. The school was in a temple by her house and the classes were taught by monks. The class read this story in a book for a history lesson. All the students were scared after learning about this legend, but my mom says she does not know why they were scared. They also turned this story into a joke amongst each other. For example, when someone dropped something far away and would have to get up to go get it, he or she would say a phrase along the lines of, “I wish I had long arms like Mae Nak.”

According to my mother and to Thai people, Mae Nak’s spirit still resides in Pakanong, which is an area in Bangkok, Thailand. People still worship her and pay respects to her at her statue or to pictures of her in their homes. The people living in that area give offerings to her, which often include Thai traditional outfits because she liked these beautiful outfits in her lifetime. Her story has also been adopted by other Thai books and films as well. There have been very many versions of the Mae Nak legend in movies throughout the decades. I have seen a couple of the movies and have also heard this story since I was young, maybe around the age of seven, from my parents. The story of Mae Nak is told as truth and in the form of a scary story.

Story – Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

My friend Cameron was telling me that the library at his university, Brigham Young University, closes at midnight every night and like incredibly awesome music plays on the loudspeaker. Cool music like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or like “Lord of the Rings.” Cameron told me about these legendary upperclassmen, this one guy and a group of his friends, at BYU who spent the night at the library, against the school’s honor code and like if you get caught you can get like expelled. And so at about two a.m., the loudspeaker came on saying something like “You may think you’re so cool and can get away with hiding out in the library, but we’ll find you!” I’m not sure what the exact words were and they weren’t sure if it was like a recording or a person you know. And Cameron and his friends don’t know if this story is true or not. They don’t even know if the loudspeaker comes on past closing to scare students who have overstayed their welcome, but they’re planning on finding out for themselves sometime.

Both Emilie and her friend Cameron are Mormon and lived in Irvine, CA. The two of them are really close friends. They have grown up together since the fourth grade, they went to the same church, they attended the same high school, and they hang out together often. Her friend currently attends Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. They stay in contact and her friend told this story to her over winter break when they were telling each other stories about their college experiences thus far since they are both freshmen.

Emilie said that Cameron and his friends are a bit rowdy. She explained that the atmosphere and area of BYU is quite different from L.A. She said that at BYU they have police reports, which are similar to the DPS crime alerts at the University of Southern California, but the material reported is so different. She gave the example that in the DPS crime alerts there would be mugs and thefts while in the police reports, there would be statements such as “there was a suspicious guy with a mustache by the library.” Cameron told her that his friends and he have already been in a couple of police reports for playing with fireworks and swimming in the pool before it opened, but they were never caught. Emilie also explained that there was an honor code at BYU that all the students had to sign and follow all year round, including when they went home for holidays such as Thanksgiving. Some parts of the code include no drinking, no smoking, no facial hair except for mustaches for the males, and no long hair for the males. Other stipulations include special hours for members of the opposite gender to be able to visit and no member of the opposite gender allowed in a dorm room past midnight.

The rules and regulations that restrict and almost oppress student behavior may encourage students like Cameron and his friends to act rebellious and find fun, sneaky activities to do. Also, since everyone involved in these activities is male, it ties into Marina Warner’s chapter in her book Six Myths of Our Time that discusses the mischievous, playful behavior of boys. Cameron heard this story from another male upperclassman at BYU. Therefore, this legend can be considered a friend of a friend story or a FOAF.

Warner, Marina. Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and More. Pg. 25-42. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Medicine – Thailand

Cumin Plant Medicine

Pick the cumin plant from the ground. It grows underneath the dirt like potatoes and ginger. Dig it up, cut off the leaves and everything else, and we use only the roots. Rub the roots on a flat stone like a grinding stone to get the juice of the plant out. The juice is yellow in color. Mix the juice with white power made from white dirt. Then rub the mixture onto skin. You can rub it all over your body.

This medicine made from the cumin plant is supposed to make skin whiter or have a more yellow tint which is, according to my mother, considered beautiful in Thailand. This shows a cultural difference between America’s concept of beauty and Thailand’s concept of beauty. The contemporary perspective in America is that tan skin equates to beauty, while Thailand views whiter skin as beautiful. The medicine is also believed to make the skin smoother and rids itchiness and irritation of the skin for the person to which it is applied. My mother explained that parents like to apply this cumin medicine on their children, both boys and girls. Parents usually begin to use it on their children as early as the age of one or two and continue to use it on them for several years. Even adults sometimes use this medicine. However, my mother said that although the medicine is used for children of both genders, only girls continue to use it as they mature and grow older. She jokingly mentioned that if boys use the cumin when they are older, there would be reason to worry and they would be considered gay. Although my mother said this in a joking manner, her comment reveals the traditional views that she holds and has been raised with in regards to the morality of homosexuality.

The usage of the cumin medicine is more common among women, which ties into the traditional cultural view that women are supposed to look beautiful, do the housework, and take care of the children. Although the medicine is applied to both boys and girls, the people making and using the medicine are almost always women. This practice also tends to be more common in the smaller towns in Thailand rather than the big cities. It is more of a rural-type practice and belief rather than a modern or urban one. My mother was raised in Chaiyaphum, Thailand, which is a small town. My mother’s mother, my grandmother, rubbed cumin medicine on my mother and all of her five siblings when they were young. I found out that my mother and aunt used it on me when I was young as well. They made the mixture in our house from the plant in our own backyard. I have no recollection of this because they stopped when I was still young, and I do not believe that it had any effect on making my skin whiter. I have also seen the cumin medicine referenced in Thai movies and soap operas.

Joke – San Marino, California

So one day I was walking on the beach when I saw this girl with no arms and no legs crying on the shore. I went up to her and asked her why she was crying. She said, “I’ve never been hugged before.” So I gave her a hug and said, “There, now you’ve been hugged.” But she was still crying. So I was like, “Why are you still crying?” She said, “I’ve never been kissed before.” So I gave her a kiss and said, “There, now you’ve been kissed.” But she was still crying. So I was like what the heck and asked her why she was still crying. She said, “I’ve never been fucked before.” So I picked her up and threw her in the ocean and said, “There, now you’ve been fucked!”

Pierre remembers hearing this joke from a really funny guy at his middle school in San Marino, CA. Although he thinks it is a little mean, he thinks it is more hilarious. In this joke, several motifs can be seen. There is the presence of the number three, which appears in numerous jokes. The character that the teller becomes during the joke asks the girl three times why she is crying, gets three responses, and acts accordingly three times. The punch line appears at the end of the joke, as it normally does. The punch line in this one is effective because the listener has the mindset that the girl was suggesting a sexual action, but the main character of the joke ironically acts upon the other meaning of the word “fucked,” which is being in a difficult situation, and throws her into the ocean. Since the listener was led to believe that sexual intercourse was suggested but it did not occur, this joke resembles a catch riddle in which the listener is caught thinking a socially inappropriate thought because the wording or the content of the riddle actually led the listener to think in such a way.

This joke also includes profanity, the issue of sexuality, and social standards. Pierre said that he heard this joke in middle school, which is a fairly early time for children to speak profanely and address the issue of sexuality. Yet, many jokes such as this one serve the purpose of allowing children to explore adult issues that may be prohibited or considered inappropriate for children. Jokes are viewed as acceptable ways for this exploration and discussion because the issue is excused after the laughter. Social standards are portrayed within this joke as well. The whole narrative is centered on the girl crying because she has yet to experience certain things that society suggests are things that people should have experienced, including hugging, kissing, and engaging in sexual intercourse. Since it is socially accepted to have experienced these acts, the main character feels obligated to provide these experiences for the girl. However, it is also shown that simply asking for and giving out sex is also considered socially unacceptable, which is why the joke ends with a different interpretation of the action. This joke is an example of how adult issues are subtly included in jokes.