A religious ceremony in my neighborhood
Some weeks ago, while driving back to my room late evening, I noticed high activity around Wat Santitham, a vital temple in my area in Chiang Mai. There was a coming and going of nicely dressed people, and remarkably there were also may monks around. Initially, I thought it was some religious ceremony. Until a Thai friend told me what was going on, an important monk associated with this temple had died. Hence the high activity in and around the temple. So, many people came to express their respect for the deceased monk.
Attending a cremation in Thailand
The whole event lasted a day or ten and was finalized with the incineration of the monk’s corpse. Because I never experienced a cremation in Thailand, I decided to attend the final religious ceremony. I dressed up in dark pants and a black shirt, you are supposed to be dressed in white or black, and walked to the square opposite the temple. In the middle of the square, there was a stage with a coffin on a pile of bricks. Everything was nicely decorated with garlands and life-sized photographs of the deceased monk. Around 2000 people were present; official delegations from the government, monks, and ordinary people. Moreover, there were also some foreigners among the attendants, not that many, though, I would say twenty at most.
Presenting symbolic gifts
Around 3 pm, the actual incineration ceremony started. First of all, several announcements were made through a sound system, in Thai, of course, and on certain moments en masse prayers were held. Meanwhile, numerous people walked to the stage to deposit a monk’s garment, a candle or a bunch of flowers. These are symbolic gifts, providing necessities for the monk in his next life. All this took place on a square blazing in the sun. So it was a bit of an enduring activity. But luckily, there were plenty of chairs available, and drinks; water, iced tea and coffee, and soft drinks were regularly distributed.
Limited Thai language skills
Seated on a plastic chair in between the Thai, I could not get enough of observing this fascinating ritual. As the hours passed by, and curious as they are, many attendees tried to communicate with me. Unfortunately, my Thai language skills are too limited to conduct a real in-depth conversation. But somehow, I did feel my presence was somehow appreciated. A week after my attendance, when I visited my regular Thai hairdresser – also in Santitham, he told me he spotted me at the cremation and even thanked me for attending this religious ceremony.
Obtaining merit by offering free food
In the surrounding streets of Santitham, you could get free food and drinks all day. This is an area where many Thai students reside, with countless food stalls and local, non-touristy drinking outlets. As for the free distribution of meals and refreshments, this has to do with obtaining merit. By doing good for others, you get more merit. A sincere Buddhist tries to gain as much of it as possible. One can not think of earning in the sense of performing work and being paid for it. From Sanskrit, the translation means positive force. Merit originates from the result of a constructive act that leads to happiness.
Combustion lasting many hours
Finally, at dusk, the actual farewell ritual commenced. Everyone who wanted to could bring a final greeting to the deceased holy man at the coffin. Afterward, the monks began their ritual chants, and the coffin was set in flames. The combustion has taken many hours. But like many Thai, I left home after an hour. Above all, most of us had been attending this impressive religious ceremony for seven hours.