Part of The Life Change Blog series.
A while ago I attended a 3 day funeral and body burning at a Buddhist Temple just outside Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. It was the steepest learning curve since my secondary school art teacher gave me an album called Hot Rats by some goatee bearded genius called Frank Zappa at the same time as giving me an art book called Fat, Felt and Flat Batteries by the modern German artist Joseph Beuys. I went home, put on the record and read the book and my brain exploded.
There is so much that is remarkable about death, coping with bereavement and the funeral process in Thailand that it’s hard to know where to start. Some of my brain synapses are still trying to make new connections in order to comprehend and understand the avalanche of new thinking and alien concepts.
Did you know, for example, that if a person dies suddenly and unexpectedly, say in a road traffic accident, their spirit doesn’t necessarily know they are dead and will be wandering around the crash site lost and bewildered like a man in a lingerie department.
And, also that the dead person can “hear” for some time after they have actually died and your last whispered words, and even thoughts, affect the transition of the “dead” person from this life to the next.
Just in order to write about it requires me to use multiple quote marks as I no longer seem have useful English words to describe what I thought were standard truths. The notion of “dead” is up for grabs out here.
On the evening of the second day just as dusk was falling in the temple a portly beneficent faced monk appeared. There was a ripple of excitement. A friend whispered to me that this was a “celebrity monk” from a neighbouring temple who had been brought in, and also bought in apparently, to make a “special talk.” I could feel my poor old western brain synapses fizzing again.
He walked through the congregation, smiling and talking to people as he went, and sat in a large uncomfortable looking wooden chair at the far end of the open sided hall where we were all crowded. “You must not be sad, you must not be unhappy” he said in perfect English and then said a lot of things in Thai which made every body laugh. He was sitting about 10 feet away from the refrigerated coffin and often talked directly to the person inside.
He broke into English again, “things are just moving along, that’s all that is happening, we are moving along.” And to emphasize his point he made all 300 of us stand up and move one place to our left and sit down again. “Just moving along, same thing different place” he said. A bit more of my brain fell away and tried to re-connect somewhere else.
He continued to speak and chant and sing in Thai and English for about 2 hours during which time the phrase “just moving along” kept circling my head like vultures over a dying man in the desert. Occasionally the whole congregation would laugh, even the close relatives of the deceased. Or to use my new terminology, ‘the close relatives of the “person who has just moved along.”’
I could feel the friendly faces of Frank Zappa and Joseph Beuys looking down on me and saying “that’s right son, you’ve got the hang of it, we haven’t left, we’ve just moved on, we all do.”
The fairy lights in the temple gardens twinkled and flashed away energetically in the darkness, like a school disco where nobody’s dancing. The monk was chatting away, now bantering with people in the congregation; some people were talking amongst each other and some where eating ham sandwiches and fairy cakes from little cardboard lunch boxes which had been liberally distributed throughout the ceremony.
A warm breeze rustled the tops of the mango trees and giant black bats fluttered around the flood lights in the car park. It felt calm, it felt comfortable. To be honest it felt a bit like watching a warm up act at comedy festival. But beyond everything it just felt normal, really, normal, which, given the situation was bloody weird.
I thought about the person lying in the coffin “listening” to the various proceedings and wondered what they would make of it. I thought about Frank Zappa and Joseph Beuys, I thought about my Dad and George Melly, Sylvia Plath and Adrain Mitchell and all the people who had moved on before me. I looked at the monk who beamed his big warm smile over the crowd and deep down felt that something important was happening; important and normal, if you can get such a combination.
The bats continued to flutter overhead, children ran laughing through the temple gardens, the fairy lights were flashing away madly, monks were chanting in an adjacent temple building and incense smoke seemed to be pouring through the crowd like mist. It made me feel a bit giddy so I got up and walked out to the car park.
I watched the distant head lights of traffic on the ring road. I looked back into the temple and the crowds of people listening to the monk. I listened to the chanting with the phrase “just moving along” running around my head and began to hum the catchy little riff to one of Frank Zappa’s most well known songs.
Before I knew what I was doing I was singing to myself, quite loudly, in a dark temple car park. The words, as if buried suddenly and easily tumbled out “and the years are rollin by, and I guess you only get one chance in life to sing a song, and the years are rollin by and you only get one chance in life to sing a song that goes like…”
And then the song, like everything, unexpectedly ends, or I should say “moves on.”
Thanks for reading.
If you would like to read more articles about Life Change in the Life Change Blog category click here, or coping with bereavement.
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