There are these small temples (wats) that dot the rural landscape of Thailand-especially in the North. From a distance, these little wats look almost identical to their bigger counterparts which are often nearby. The difference, from a distance, is that the “little” wats have a long, tall chimney that protrudes into the sky. The “little” wats are crematoria.
I had been coming to Thailand for many years when I first pointed out to my wife one of those little wats, sitting all by itself, on a lonely country road. I told her to stop the car so I could take some photos, not knowing what it was.
“It’s where we burn the dead,” she said.
Until that moment, I had given very little thought as to what all these little wats were. I never paid them much attention. Once my wife had pointed out what these little wats really were, I realized that the rural countryside of Northern Thailand has crematoria everywhere.
Thais traditionally are cremated and the ashes thrown in a river. (Again, I’m not Buddhist, but if that’s my end, it’s fine with me.) Buddhist graveyards don’t exist. But wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
When a person dies in Thailand, the family usually goes out and rents a specially made refrigeration unit to put the body in. Essentially, it’s a refrigerator that rests on its backside and has four wheels on the bottom so you can push it around. The door is made of glass so visitors can see the dead inside. The body is not embalmed. The family then puts the dead into the refrigerator (washed and dressed) and keeps it at their home for between 7-30 days. Friends and family come over to the family house to pay their last respects. It is after this process that the body is then taken to a crematorium.
My wife wouldn’t go with me as I went to take a close-up look at this lonely crematorium. She stayed in the car with her sister. Only a farang would nose around a place like this.
At the foot of the stairs that led to the crematorium, you could clearly see the oven. The oven’s large iron door had been cast with an imprint of the Buddha. There was black soot everywhere inside. Behind the crematorium, was a large pavilion for friends and family to gather. There were signs of recent use. And there were two more ovens, not housed in the small wat, also close by.
Cremation is done in public where anyone can come, see and smell.
At the foot of the stairs, I wai-ed (see Chapter 1) deeply to the Buddha imprint on the oven. I wasn’t taking any chances. Maybe it was the stillness of the air; Or the sun’s slanted light of a late winter afternoon. Whatever it was, I got spooked. I took heed of my wife’s warning of spirits being about.
I took a few quick photos and wai-ed again. No one’s ever gotten into trouble in The Kingdom by wai-ing too much. And for the dead…it’s better to respect them too much than not at all. I walked back to the car, and we quickly drove off.
Death in Buddha Land is simple.