All about Thai funerals

All about Thai funerals

When I first arrived in Thailand some time ago, I remember being very surprised that, after a while there, I had never seen a funeral taking place. A decidedly provincial mentality made me imagine a funeral as we conceive it in the West: a church decorated in mourning, a rigorously black hearse with a coffin inside, and four strangers who carry the coffin up to the altar and back, except for the few times in which the coffin is carried on the shoulders of friends.

Of course, had I waited to see that kind of funeral, I could have easily deluded myself that Thailand granted its inhabitants immortality. I soon discovered that in reality this is not the case, and that even here people normally leave this ‘valley of tears’ in the waiting for a reincarnation, or to reach Nirvana.

Over time I have discovered that funerals are celebrated in these latitudes too, as indeed in other parts of the world, but that here they look more like celebrations than mournful events. This is because beyond the sadness caused by loss and detachment, accompanying a loved one on his last journey and greeting him in the moment he is ferried from this life to the one that awaits him, better or worse depending on the merits acquired during his existence, still remains an important and joyful event. Safe travels to the ‘dear departed’, and goodbye to the next life.

It is not my intention here to bore you by telling in details how a Thai funeral takes place. It will be enough for you to know that a generally ‘rich’ banquet is set up for the duration of the ceremony; that every day and up to the day of cremation, monks come to chant their litanies in Sanskrit; and that the body is cremated with its coffin, but this last procedure is now catching on with the West more and more.

What I would like to focus on, nevertheless, are some curiosities that I noticed during some funeral ceremonies.

‘Cheating’ about the age of the deceased

Preparing the meal for the funeral banquet

Once death has occurred, some time will have to pass before the soul of the deceased really passes on to a better life – provided that the necessary merits have been acquired for the following life to be better. But will there also be a way to eliminate certain unnecessary delays and allow our loved one to be reborn as soon as possible? In Thailand they do it as the Chinese do, as they are unbeatable in deceiving the gods with little childish tricks: the date of death is modified by anticipating it as desired so that it seems more time has passed since the passing, and therefore less time should pass for the future reincarnation. I think of the Iliad and the Greek gods who continually made fun of mortals. There’s no denying it… the Chinese are one step ahead.

It goes without saying that this exchange of dates cannot be indicated in official documents, but only in the temple. There, the alleged dates of birth and death are specified next to the photo that commemorates the deceased. As we all know, the gods go to visit the temple, they  are not going to check the registry office, are they?

Tolerance towards gambling

In Thailand, gambling in all its forms is prohibited. The penalties are quite severe, but this does not discourage those Thais who, taken by the demon of gambling, are willing to take the risk and, if necessary, even gamble their mother. I’ve known people who gambled and lost fortunes, but even then Thailand wouldn’t be all that different from the rest of the world.

The curious difference, on the other hand, occurs during funerals: it is in these anniversaries that a window opens up for hardened gamblers, as the area used for the funeral ceremony becomes a kind of free zone for gambling. I’m not sure if this is by law or if it’s simply just a custom; the fact remains that I can proudly count among my acquaintances people who attend all the funerals in their area to be able to play cards freely.

The economic return of the funeral banquet

A omelette for the visitors

Everywhere, but especially in rural areas, a funeral ceremony is accompanied by lavish banquets which, as mentioned above, extend up to the moment of cremation. It is inconceivable that those who come to pay homage to ‘our loved one’ remain on an empty stomach: it would be like not honouring the memory of the deceased adequately. Then there is the sense of hospitality, plus the need not to lose face in front of people. But there is also something else, something we can summarise in one sentence: “the more you spend, the more you earn”.

It is customary, in fact, that those who go to a funeral never show up empty-handed but always have an envelope containing money to leave as an offer. Once the cremation has taken place, a balance sheet will be made which hopefully will be active, either for trivial economic reasons but also, why not, to give an economic value, so to speak, of the esteem enjoyed by the deceased.

What numbers should we play?

Official lottery numbers seller at a temple

Among the gambling and bets that go crazy in Thailand, lotteries (official or clandestine) play a fundamental role, also because being bimonthly they can give relatively frequent winnings. Thais believe a winning number can be ‘found’ in any object, in any shade, in any event. It is enough to mention that Thais also bet on the two last decimal numbers of the closing of the stock exchange – I was truly amazed when in a countryside area I met a farmer who was carefully following the closing of the Bangkok stock exchange, and then I understood… It is then not hard to believe that a funeral event can be seen as a good source of winning numbers.

On the sidelines, there are the sellers of the official lottery tickets who, on bicycles and carrying a kind of wooden suitcase full of ‘winning’ tickets, have it clear in their heads that in temples, especially during funerals, there is good business to be made. For those interested, the number of the funeral that inspired this story was 102 which, of course… did not come out.

What piece of grandpa did you get?

Once the cremation has taken place and the ashes have cooled, the search begins: the closest relatives, generally on the day after the cremation, go back to the temple to rummage through the ashes to find some piece of ‘grandfather’ still intact and ‘surviving’ the furnace. It can be a tooth, a piece of bone or anything which, if it had belonged to a saint, would be called a relic and would be venerated in some temple. But since it is the remains of an ordinary mortal, they will end up in the homes of some relative who will place it in a pendant or small gold frame, perhaps always wearing it around the neck by means of a gold chain.

Acquisition of merits

The author making offers to the monks

The acquisition of merits is a fundamental practice in the Buddhist religion, and it can generally recall the indulgences of the Catholic counterpart. In truth, I’ve never heard of monks selling their merits the way the church sold their indulgences centuries ago, at least not systematically. Some monks may have done so, but I can’t tell for sure. But let’s not digress. Buddhist faithful acquire merits, which are nothing more than kind of vouchers for a better future life: for themselves, for relatives (often parents) or for their deceased.

One means of acquiring merit for the latter consists in initiating one or more young people of the family as a novice in a temple. This practice is becoming more and more symbolic in the frenetic lifestyle of Bangkok, where the novice is expected only to shave his hair and eyebrows and wear the ‘Kesa’, the traditional orange dress, for a day or two. In the provinces though, and above all in the countryside where traditions are still observed with much more attention, the period of noviciate lasts several days.

Funeral wreaths of… fans and air-conditioned coffins

Thailand is indeed a hot country, and Bangkok is no exception. Sometimes the heat becomes almost oppressive due to traffic, exhausts and anything that can generate an additional layer of heat. That’s why at a funeral in Bangkok I saw something I had never seen before: alongside the classic round funeral wreaths with the name of the senders, there were floral arrangements directly mounted on a fan, also stating the name of the person who sent it. A very practical choice indeed: the flowers wither but the fans stay and are useful to alleviate the discomfort from the heat. At the end of the ceremony, the fans are sometimes taken away by the relatives of the deceased, but more often they are left as a gift to the monks of the temple.

And speaking of heat, you surely do not wish for the dear deceased to melt in a sea of sweat, especially after all the efforts made to avoid premature decomposition. So here it is: a small supplement and the coffin where the body awaits, between a visit and a prayer, to be cremated, is furnished with a small air conditioning system.

The color of mourning

Young monk tasked at giving merits

Unlike in the West, in various Asian countries the color of mourning is not necessarily black. For example, Muslim countries use white because it is the color of the shrouds. Even in China and Korea white is the color that is worn in funerals, while in Thailand, and now also in Japan, both black and white can be worn. In general, as you can guess, wearing bright colours should be avoided.

A shower with coconut water

I left this custom among the last because it is the one that struck me the most. Shortly before proceeding with the cremation, the coffin is opened. Saying the last goodbye to the deceased is normal practice, and almost always photos are taken of the body. But before letting those present approach the coffin, the master of ceremonies smashes a coconut with an axe and pours its contents on the face of the deceased. Coconut milk represents an element of purity in Thai culture, so sprinkling it on the face of the deceased means a last sign of purification before cremation.

Please, when my time comes, if it were possible, I would like coffee instead of coconut water: it’s a matter of coherence.

The duration of the funeral ceremony

A short-lived funeral is not conceivable in Thailand, except for Muslims who usually proceed with the burial within 48 hours. For Buddhists, the funeral ceremony always lasts at least 3 days but often more, and in any case an odd number of days.

Reasons are various: to allow distant relatives to participate in the cremation; to spend a little more time with the remains of a relative or friend, thus making the separation more gradual and less painful; but also for reasons of seniority or importance. For an elderly person or a person of some caliber, the time that elapses before cremation lengthens, consequently increasing the number of ceremonies and prayers. In the case of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a year passed from the date of his death to that of his funeral and cremation.


All the funeral rituals described above take place in the evocative setting of a temple which, as with many other important Thai events, becomes the center of local life and tradition, with its coloured roofs whose tiles recall the scales of a snake.

Once the death has occurred and is certified by the local authorities, formalin is injected into the body of the deceased to prevent decomposition, and the white coffin is transferred to the temple where it will receive all the honours and prayers. There it will remain until the last act, when a column of smoke will rise from the crematorium and, as said earlier, goodbye to the next life.

Photos by Guglielmo

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About the author

Pluto, alias Guglielmo Zanchi, was born in Rome, Italy, on 19 December 1960. After obtaining a Degree in Political Science at the La Sapienza University and working six years at an accountant office, PLuto moved to Phuket, Thailand, in 1993. He had a short spell at a Gibbon Rehabilitation Center in the protected area of Bang Pae, then worked for 15 years for a local tour operator first in Phuket, and eventually in Krabi where he still lives since 2000. Pluto now works self employed in the tourist sector, managing to keep enough time free for his real passions: photography, travels and Vespa, at times merging the latter two. Pluto is one of photo reporters.

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