The Grand Funeral of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Intricate Buddhist Funerary Rites
For Thai Buddhists, funerals are extremely important moments, as they represent rebirth and the passage from one existence to another. The elaborate funeral rites recently held in honor of Thailand’s deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej follow many of the traditional practices – albeit on a grander scale.
According to Irrawaddy, the formal conclusion to the funeral rites for King Bhumibol brought hundreds of thousands of mourners to Bangkok’s historic old quarter. The time was an emotional one for many Thai people because their king was immensely popular, even earning the nickname “Father”, due to his numerous philanthropic acts while he ruled as the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
Portrait of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. (Government of Thailand/CC BY 2.0)
The Guardian reports that many businesses and banks were closed to honor the late king, as a royal urn was moved from the Grand Palace to the cremation site in three processions. Images of black-clad mourners flooded social media with hashtags such as #rama9, #kingofkings, and #thegreatestking attached. The expected number of mourners led the government to build 85 smaller replicas of the crematorium around the country to allow people to mourn.
King Bhumibol’s son - the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn who led the religious ceremonies from when he went to collect his father’s remains in the morning - held a symbolic cremation and presided over a private cremation at night. He sprinkled the bones with sacred water in a live televised ritual and the remains were blessed by Thailand’s Supreme Patriarch, the head of the order of Buddhist monks. Classical Thai music played in the background throughout.
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In a day-long procession, royal chariots and palanquins, including the great victory chariot, a 13-ton vehicle that was pulled by more than 200 men, transported the late king’s body to his custom made nine-spired crematorium. The Guardian reports the best artisans in the country have spent 10 months in the creation of the 50-meter (ft.) tall golden crematorium. Intricate carvings of mythical creatures, staircases, and King Bhumibol’s two favorite dogs were included in the design.
The Irrawaddy account of the funeral concludes with King Maha Vajiralongkorn presiding over the cremation of his father’s remains in a late-night ceremony. This was said to have taken place at a golden crematorium representing Mount Meru, a location which is both “the center of the Hindu and Buddhist universe” and also where the spirits of Thai royalty are said to return after death. The final ritual was transporting the royal relics to the Grand Palace.
The cost of King Bhumibol’s funeral has been estimated at a staggering US$90 million. King Bhumibol died last October at the age of 88 and the recent ceremony brings a close to a year long period of mourning. During that time, government officials and many other people in Thailand have only worn black.
Paul Chambers of Thailand’s Naresuan University explained that the cremation ceremony marks the end of an era:
“The cremation is a crucial ritual for Thailand. The December coronation of his son ... marks the official new beginning of the next dynasty. The father’s long and well-choreographed reign will be a tough act for the son to follow. As such, he will not escape the inevitable comparison.”
King Maha Vajiralongkorn performs a ritual with the royal relics. (The Nation)
As you may have noted in some explanations of the rituals of King Bhumibol’s funeral, tradition plays a large role in this immensely important moment for Thai Buddhists. Buddhanet, a website of the Buddha Dharma Education Association, explains:
“Funeral rites are the most elaborate of all the life-cycle ceremonies and the ones entered into most fully by the monks. It is a basic teaching of Buddhism that existence is suffering, whether birth, daily living, old age or dying. This teaching is never in a stronger position than when death enters a home.”
Older and more highly respected individuals, such as King Bhumibol, have more elaborate and lengthy funerals, but all Thai Buddhist funerary rites tend to follow more or less the same traditional practices. Following a death, a bathing ceremony is held, in which family and friends pour water over one of the deceased’s hands. Then there is a formal wake held for the deceased for three to seven days (depending on the individual’s status and location in Thailand). At that time, Buddhist Thai families buy a temple-like bier made of wood and crepe paper for their loved one and the casket holding the deceased is placed on the bier.
Phra Mahaphichairatcharot (The Royal Great Victory Carriage) which has been used in royal cremation ceremonies in Thailand. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Buddhanet says that a Thai Buddhist wake involves music, gifts, gambling, and feasting. Wreaths, incense, and candles are placed around the casket, and a photo of the dead is also present whenever possible. Monks are brought in to chant and conduct the funeral rituals. Food is offered to the monks in the name of the deceased as a final form of merit-making. Buddhists believe that as long as the body is present, the person can receive gifts and benefit from chanting. Cremation cuts the ties to the World, thus funeral rites may be lengthy and include various services.
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King Maha Vajiralongkorn presides over a merit-making ceremony for the Royal Relics and Ashes which includes giving alms to senior monks. (The Nation)
When it is time, the casket is carried out of the house in an ‘unusual way’ (sometimes through a hole in the wall or floor or over a blanket of banana leaves) to the cremation ceremony by men with long bamboo poles, or in an ornate funerary cart (building merit for the family and friends as well). After the mourners have said their final goodbyes, monks, then mourners, will place flowers made of shaved sandalwood under the coffin. It’s believed the fragrance of the sandalwood helps to lead the souls of the dead to heaven. Often a short prayer is offered to the deceased at that time, forgiving them for any wrongdoings and then a mourner will sometimes receive a book or pamphlet with Buddhist teachings as a token to remember the funeral. Finally, the remains are cremated, and the ashes may be gathered in an urn.
Top Image: Image during part of the funeral ceremony for Thailand’s deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Source: The Nation