It’s Expensive to Die in Thailand

28 Nov

It’s expensive to die in Thailand.

Found out it costs major bank to die in Thailand. Who knew.

I was mounted on an elephant, being guided by a 12 year old, meandering down a muddy trail, when we stumbled upon music, laughter and smoke. I asked the soon-to-be teen elephant driver, “what’s this?” He responded, “Die. Die. Die.” I rephrased the question and the response was the same. Die? These people are partying, eating and playing. They’re not killing. It must be a funeral.

Of course, I was mortified to be that random American tourists on an elephant kicking-up dust at their funeral party. They see this a lot – a tourist on top of an elephant. But, still.  Look, I would NOT want some random out-of-towner walking through my fiesta for the dead on large animal. I mustered a smile. Nodded at them. And, pretended to be invisible riding a mammal weighing a few tons.

Much later, I asked Bae – my English speaking Thai guide – more about funerals in Thailand We had a 2 hour car ride in front of us to get back to Chiang Mai. Needed a “hot topic.” Plus, Bae’s English was very, very good.

Bae: “Guess how much Buddhist funeral costs in Thailand?”

Me: “No clue. $500 US dollars?”

Bae: “No, cost between $3,500 and $7,000 US dollars. And, if you are rich, it costs more.”

Me: “You have GOT to be kidding. For what? Is the body dipped in gold?”

Bae elaborated…

Bae: You are very funny, Ms. Aman-DA. Buddhist believe when you die, your spirit needs help. There is a lot of preparation. If you are poor, then Monk says need three days to prepare. If you are rich, need seven days or ten days. Monk come to house to tell you.

Me: What happens to the body during this time? In morgue?

Bae: No. Dead in house. In the bedroom during preparation period. On last day, dead goes to crematoria. If you are rich, you can rent space at the Buddhist temple and not put dead in bedroom. Monks charge a lot for the space.

Now, if you die in accident and not by natural causes, then the body can not come home. It must go to the Buddhist temple and the Monks charge you rent – poor or rich. Buddhist believe if you die in accident – like a motor-bike wreck, knife fight or elephant stomping – then there is bad Karma or bad spirits around you. Accidents to Buddhist mean you were not suppose to die then. A bad spirit came and got you. So, to protect the family from bad spirits, dead body goes to the temple. And, yes, Monks make money. Lot of accidents in Thailand.

Me: What happens during the three days when dead body is sitting’ in the bedroom?

Bae: During these three days, everyone from the village stop by home to show respect. You – the host of the dead – must prepare food for village when they come by house. You cook breakfast, lunch and dinner and feed all village these three days. Last day, is celebration. You pay and cook for big party for village. Pay for food. Pay Monk. Pay for whiskey and soda. Very expensive.

Stop right there. All I heard was the family of deceased has to pay for Monk time and food/drink for three days for EVERYONE in the village. And, booze costs? We’re talking about some serious cash. Thai people LOVE to party and drink.

Me: “Wait. You mean to tell me the family has to pay for everything? What if they are poor? What if they have no money for monks or whiskey?”

Bae: “You find a way. Our culture is about respect. Saving face. We don’t question Buddhist belief systems. Or, how things are done. It’s about respecting the dead, monks and tradition. You find a way. My mother-in-law died. We had to pay over $6,000 US dollar for food, drink and Monk ceremony. This is a lot for Thai person. Costs more than a car and two motor-bikes.”

Me: “My God. It’s expensive to die in Thailand.

I mean, in the states, weddings are a big business with feeding and liquoring up the masses. Funerals? Not a big business….yet… It could be because we Christians and non-Christians bury the dead in one day. And, getting married can be a two night, three day affair – excluding honeymoon and the pre-prep costs. Weddings, not funerals, are big business.

For funerals, a family spends dough on the church, casket/cremation, plot, flowers, hired cars… And, because the family is in a state of grief, its the neighbors, friends, church ladies or relatives are the ones who prepare the food for the gathering after the funeral. This is a time for people to support the family, not gouge them. Seriously Don’t die in Thailand”

Bae: “Very different in Thailand. Monks need money. Family needs merit. Very different.”

Now, here we get into the real discussion. Bae broke Thai funeral down day by day. After listening to him, I was exhausted and figured you need a second job when there’s a death in the family.

Day 1:

Body comes home. Dead rests in bedroom. Feeding the village is contingent on when dead body arrives. Dead arrives before lunch, the host family must serve lunch and dinner on Day 1. After lunch, we’re talking dinner only. No whiskey or sodas are offered, yet.

Around 8 pm you get a knock on the door. Monks (PLURAL) arrive for prayers and to perform ceremonies. The number of monks is based on your pocket book. Expect Monks to come in odd numbers. “One” is not odd. So, minimal, you’re looking at three Monks in orange robes. If you are rich, expect more like five to eleven….

Monk performs ceremony in San-script for host family and relatives. No clue what the Monks are saying in ceremony. They do remind the host family about the five main precepts (rules) in the Buddhism practiced in Thailand. If you follow them, then you will be closer to enlightenment and not be reincarnated into a rabid dog.

  1. Don’t kill humans or animals.
  2. Don’t steal.
  3. Don’t lie.
  4. Don’t commit adultery.
  5. Don’t drink.

Don’t drink? We will come back to that one later. Bae said when the Monks get to #5, everyone in the room puts their head down for they all either drunk or intend to be drunk in a matter of hours.

After the ceremony, the host family pays Monks $$ for merit. Merit is an uncommon word for me. I found out merit is what you earn for doing “good” deeds. So, when you die and the “universe” is deciding your next life form the more merit – good deeds – you stacked up in this life, the higher likelihood you’ll be reincarnated into a 7-11 franchise owner instead of a elephant taking around tourists. I’m sooooo overly simplifying all of this.

Point here is that the host family is buying merit – or a hall pass – for themselves and for the dead peacefully resting in the bedroom. When Bae was telling me about how each night the family needs to offer money to the Buddhist Monks for merit, Luther sprang to my head for Catholics tried to pull the same thing. Martin Luther, a catholic monk, criticized the Pope for pardoning people in exchange for money. Luther believed it was wrong for the church to earn money by selling forgiveness or pardons, instead of praying to God and asking for forgiveness. Long story short, after the scuttle between Luther and the Pope, a new denomination was founded – Say hello to protestantism.

And, once again, I find it entertaining how man is so uninvented when it comes to swindling money in the name of God. It’s the same story, different century. Get creative people…

Day 2

Host family of dead prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for entire village.

Monks come by again for the same ceremony. Underscoring the same FIVE precepts.

Host family still drinks.

Monks get the same money. Host family gets the same merit.

Dead body still in the bedroom. Host family lights incense

Day 3

Big spending day for the host family. They prepare breakfast, lunch, dinner and booze.

Monk(s) must eat before noon. It is a Monk rule that they can not chew anything after the noon hour. No gum. Nothing. Only liquids. So, the monks must be fed between 11:00 – noon.

Monks eat first.

Villagers eat after.

Monks kick off ceremony after everyone, including the dogs and water buffalo, are fed.

Host family says some simple words. This all take place at the home.

If host family has a son of a young age, watch out on Day 3. The monks require the son to shave its head – regardless if they have a future in the monk-hood – and put on an Orange sheet. The son is considered a Monk novice on this day. Little novice goes with the Monks and takes dead from bedroom and places him/her in a coffin.

Monks and novice boy are draped in orange and pull the the coffin down the road to the crematoria. (Yes, they use cars too). It is believed the color orange helps lead the dead spirit to “it” or Buddha. They don’t believe in heaven, so I’m not sure where their highway is taking them.

Next stop. Crematorium. They cremate bodies in Buddhism. There’s another ceremony, meaning coughing off more $$ to the Monks. This is your last chance for one more photo with the dead. The crematorium charges extra for pictures.

The monks do another ceremony for merit. Again, charging you more. They wheel the dead to the fire. The crematoria charges for burning. Meanwhile, it’s time to light the fireworks and get the village party started. Villagers are waiting at a park, home or central location for you to feed them and booze them. Fireworks cost a lot too. Monks are the only ones allowed to light the fireworks. It can run you around $100 to $500 US dollars. If you are rich, expect to pay the Monks more.

Next, host family provides the holy water for the monks and the crematoria. They do NOT want any evil spirits from the cremation to follow them back home. Monks charge for the holy water too. Monks do another ritual.

Next on dock is  The Part-ay. Everyone in the village comes. You are expected to pay for it all. We’re talking 50 to 500 people, if not more. If you are considered wealthy, then randoms will show up too. It’s a booze fest. Music. Food. Party… It goes late into the night. All you can drink Whiskey.

Day 4

Host family is hung over.

Day 5

Host family goes to the crematoria and pick up the ashes. Time to blast these babies into the spirit world. No joke. The monks come. Perform a ceremony. They charge you for it.

Monks put the ashes, some coins and GUN POWDER into a bottle and light it. Blast it into space. They want these ashes to get to “it” ASAP. They don’t want the spirit to get distracted. It is in everyone’s best interest to make sure dead makes it to “it.” Can’t have him/her linger around.

Day 6

You are poor.

Monks stop by to be paid.

You need much more than merit. You need a new job.

Moral here. Don’t die in Thailand.

One Response to “It’s Expensive to Die in Thailand”

  1. ktlou 09/12/2010 at 4:30 pm #

    Awesome!!! i get hooked into your every word aday. you are so funny. can’t wait to hear what your tour guide thought of tall blonde asking questions about dying.??