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.