There is something that I really like about Thai Christian funerals – they really are a celebration and a wonderful family time! In a typical Thai Christian funeral, the family gathers seven times to worship – to celebrate the life of the deceased and to tell the story of Christ’s resurrection with all of its promises for Christian believers. More often than not, there is food provided for all worshipers after each service of worship. There are lots of flowers and there is lots of music. And the family is there – from the time the individual dies until the intimate family gathering at the end when the deceased is released and those present start a new life without them. In addition to the seven services of worship, the family is also present at the church near the lunch hour each day, so that friends can visit and pay their respects (and be fed). Photographs are a huge part of each event and a wonderful time to capture the family together – as we did in this photo during Sunee’s funeral.
The first family gathering and worship service happens in the morgue at the hospital when the hospital releases the body to those who will assist with the funeral. This usually happens the morning after the death. Thailand has no funeral homes, so it is the family’s responsibility to prepare the body for viewing. This photo shows Ink, one of Sunee’s granddaughters, applying makeup to her grandmother’s face as we gather at the hospital morgue for the first of seven worship services. The woman on the left is Ink’s mother, Sunee’s eldest daughter Oi. The two other women are close friends of the family. The service of worship which followed was brief, but included hymns, scripture reading, a brief meditation and prayer. Then, several friends and family members lifted Sunee’s body off of the marble slab and into a plain white wooden coffin. Before the coffin was closed, everyone passed by and laid red rosebuds on Sunee’s body in the coffin. Once the coffin was sealed, the pastor and the staff of First Church transported the body to the church, for the first of three evening worship services.
The flowers started arriving immediately, as word of Sunee’s death spread. Eventually, there were sixteen wreaths, one from every organization Sunee had ever worked for, including the German Marberger Mission where she worked as a secretary decades ago when I was a child. The church also supplied flowers: around the foot of the coffin, a spray of flowers on top of the coffin, and a beautiful white lace pall that draped the coffin. The church also provided a large white cross which has Sunee’s name and her age written on it. The family brought a large photograph of Sunee and it was a beautiful one of her smiling broadly – before her health issues made the effort of living so difficult that smiles were rare. Since Sunee was a member of our family, our wreath was given a place of honor behind the coffin with the family wreath. Surrounded by flowers and the wonderful perfume, the church held worship services on three consecutive evenings, each with a different host (The host organization helps to offset the enormous cost for the family) and a different preacher. I was honored when the family invited me to sing a special selection for one of the three services.
The morning after the third evening worship service, there was another celebration in the main sanctuary of the church. In this photo, A, Sunee’s second daughter, brings her daughter, In, forward before the service to see her Grandmother’s photo and to look at the flowers (which held up beautifully despite the heat). Violins played special music for several services, including this one. (The Music Director of the church plays violin and teaches violin as well.) All of Sunee’s family and friends from distant places were present. The senior pastor preached and, once again, we sang joyous songs of celebration, including “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” It was a very special time. The powerful sound of hymns rang out across the neighborhood around the church as we celebrated the resurrection for the fifth time in four days!
After this service in the sanctuary, Sunee’s coffin was carried aloft out of the church and onto platform on the back of a pickup truck. There was a pause as flowers were put on top of the coffin and around it in the truck. Sunee’s photo and the large cross were also placed in the back of the pickup truck at the direction of the pastor and other staff of the church. More wreaths of flowers were loaded into other pickup trucks and taken to the crematorium, where they were placed around the steps. Then, two local policemen helped with organizing the parade of cars that drove from the church to the local crematorium. As members of the family, we were invited to ride in the church’s SUV with two of the pastors and Sunee’s daughters. Again, with the help of the two policemen, the funeral procession worked its way slowly through the neighborhoods to the crematorium.
Since Buddhists also cremate their dead (and have many more centuries of experience doing it than we Christians), the process is familiar to most of the Thai. This community crematorium is draped in black and in white to honor both Eastern and Western traditions of mourning. The style of the building is strictly Thai – very ornate with gilded trim and ceremonial layered “umbrella” roof. Traditional serpents can be seen at the end of each pointed roof. The tall, slim tower is the smoke stack of the crematorium. Flowers from Sunee’s funeral were placed on and around every staircase. Her coffin was carried into the crematorium and placed on a platform before the oven with her photo and a spray of flowers on top.
The entire congregation that drove to the crematorium was invited to come up the stairs into the crematorium and stand around Sunee’s coffin. Yet another brief service of worship reaffirmed the promises of the resurrection and eternal life. When that service was concluded, her photo, the pall, and spray of flowers were removed and Sunee’s coffin was gently lifted into the oven. Everyone was invited to place beautiful paper flowers on her coffin before the oven doors were closed. Many tears were shed (as they had been all week) as Sunee’s coffin disappeared from view. Then, everyone left the crematorium with the invitation to gather with the family that evening at Sunee’s home.
I have no photos of that intimate gathering at Sunee’s home, but it was the most moving and meaningful part of this Thai Christian funeral. There was no pastor – just the family and close friends, perhaps fifteen people in all. We sat in Sunee’s living room and spent two hours telling stories of her life, laughing and crying together. A central activity was viewing photographs of the many decades she spent with us. At the conclusion of this time, Ae, Oi’s husband and an elder of the church, talked about the transition that we marked in this time together: the transition from “looking back” to “looking forward.” After this evening together, we would stop wearing black and stop clinging to the past. We would begin a new life together, a forward-looking life filled with memories, but not sorrow – a life filled with hope and joy. Ae read scripture and prayed – prayed for God to be a part of this transition into hope and joy and a new life together. And, do you know what? After seven worship services, countless hymns and scripture readings, and opportunities to hear the promises of Christ reiterated, we were all ready to move into the future. What a stunningly beautiful way to say “Goodbye” and “Hello, again!”