Monday, January 18, 2010

A Thai Buddhist Memorial Service for Mr. Kaobang

Thursday afternoon, January 14, 2010, I was privileged to attend the traditional Thai Buddhist memorial service for Mr. Kaobang, the father of my colleague, Aumporn Kaobang. Aumporn has worked at Srinakharinwirot University's Central Library for a number of years, and she was among the group of Thai librarians who visited us in Ohio in 2007. Mr. Kaobang died suddenly, probably of a heart attack, on Tuesday, January 12th.

Around 4:30 pm we arrived at the temple near Suvarnabhumi airport, where Mr. Kaobang was often stationed during his career in the Thai government's commerce (import/export) agency. He retired a few years ago and was living on his farm outside Bangkok. Aumporn is the oldest of three children, with two younger brothers. As the eldest daughter, she was in charge of the service.

The first thing I noticed was the large crowd in attendance, ALL dressed solely in black, or in some white with black. I'm told this is typical.

There were many large, fresh flower wreaths, and the library made a wreath from books, which was on prominent display. White, black, and purple bunting draped the building where the actual service took place. Some senior library staff and others wore white, military-style uniforms that all Thai government employees wear for ceremonial occasions when they represent their revered King. For this occasion they had black arm bands, too.

The casket was white with gold decoration. It was placed on a colorfully-decorated cart and wheeled around the building several times, followed by a local brass band and the members of the funeral ceremony. After several eulogies by family and colleagues, the casket was taken up the stairs into one of the temple buildings. Saffron robes were presented to four monks by different constituencies of those present, including one from the library. Four monks are always honored in this type of ceremony. Purchase of these robes by families of the deceased is one way the temple supports itself.

Meanwhile, the casket was sitting on a symbolic cremation platform waiting for a flame from the king to arrive. This is an honor available to those who have worked for the government or others of certain ranks. Soon, several large black vehicles arrived, dignitaries got out and carried a flame in a lantern-type vessel up the stairs, where they lighted the cremation fire. Each of us had been given a white paper flower, so we all went up the stairs to add our flowers to the flame. It turns out the actual cremation takes place in an oven for the purpose elsewhere on the temple grounds. The ashes are either interred at the temple or given to the family for them to use as they choose. Once we had placed our flowers on the flame, the service was over quickly, and we drove back to campus.

The atmosphere was solemn, formal, and obviously ritually prescribed, but it was also somewhat informal.We were outside, and there were lots of quiet conversations going on. My friends were able to explain the service to me as events unfolded.

I'm honored that I could pay respects to Aumporn and her father and experience in Thailand this part of life that we all have to face eventually.

(Sorry, I don't have photos. I had forgotten my extra camera battery. In a way, I'm just as glad, because I could focus on what was happening, rather than taking pictures.)