Thai Buddhists observe an ancient tradition of honoring the unclaimed dead
A medieval Buddhist tradition started by a Buddhist monk centuries ago has people this month in Thailand exhuming and painstakingly cleaning the remains of 3,890 people who were buried without their identities being known. Volunteers with the Poh Teck Tung Foundation transferred the skeletons and remains to a warehouse for storage and eventual burial in a provincial cemetery. If they are not claimed after enough time passes they will be cremated.
The ancient tradition started with Buddhist monk Tai Hong, who collected bodies that would otherwise be left to rot in the open. “Tai Hong’s body-collecting group,” as it was known when it was formed by 12 businessmen, developed into the Poh Teck Tung Foundation in 1937 and began to do many types of charitable activities in Thailand.
In addition to cleaning the bodies very thoroughly, the foundation fingerprints them, takes photos of the corpses and sends the material to a forensics laboratory. Then the volunteers bury the bodies for three years. If no one claims the remains, the foundation burns the bodies.
Before doing all this, they take human remains from shallow graves, taking great care not to damage the bones. They use small tools to break the soil to remove the bodies from the graves, reports the Daily Mail . After cleaning and storage, in November there will be a Buddhist ceremony at another storage warehouse.
This year alone the foundation will collect nearly 4,000 bodies for burial and eventual cremation if the relatives never show up to claim them. ( PohTeckTung.org photo )
During World War II many Chinese people fled to Thailand, and the Poh Teck Tung Foundation gave them food and medical care and took unclaimed corpses to the countryside for burial.
“Poh Teck Tung Foundation’s ideology is based on Chinese beliefs that have passed from generation to generation,” says the blog News Report Munkodkod, explaining the history of the charitable tradition, which dates to the Song Dynasty, which was extant from 960 to 1279 AD.
“One of the main beliefs is the philosophy of Tai Hong, a monk who was respected by Chinese people, who had been taking unclaimed corpses to bury at the graveyard when he was alive. After his death, Chinese people decided to build his statue, which later on had been installed at Leab Temple in Thailand.”
Many years ago there was a plague in China that spread to Thailand. In China, Buddhists went to Tai Hong’s statue and asked for his blessing, donating clothes, money and coffins and financing a graveyard for unclaimed corpses. This was the start of what would later be named the Poh Teck Tung Foundation.
When World War II ended, about 170,000 Chinese people fled to Thailand by train, but they brought with them an epidemic that caused blindness, says News Report Munkodkod. The government confined the plague patients for a month, and the Poh Teck Tung Foundation supplied food, water, medical supplies, and also helped 80,000 Chinese people get Thai work permits.
The Poh Teck Tung Foundation building Bangkok, where many great charitable deeds are done (Photo by Sry85/ Wikimedia Commons )
The foundation now rescues accident victims, saves people’s lives, donates coffins and conducts funerals for abandoned bodies. Foundation staff and volunteers also distribute food and beverages in the aftermath of natural catastrophes; work with the government on mitigation of fires, floods, drought and poverty; and take home drivers who are impaired by alcohol to reduce automobile accidents. The foundation also runs Hua Chiew Hospital for expecting mothers and general medical services.
Featured image: Volunteers carefully clean and store the abandoned bodies in the hopes relatives will retrieve them. If not, the bodies are eventually cremated. ( PohTeckTung.org photo )
By Mark Miller