Prayer in the pandemic: giving dignity to the dead in Buddhist Thailand

In Thailand, where Buddhist funerals are traditionally a major ceremonial affair, the pandemic has forced families to hold low-key farewells for their loved ones

Agence France-Presse
January 15, 2021
Prayer in the pandemic: giving dignity to the dead in Buddhist Thailand
Commuters walk along an overpass in Bangkok on January 14. Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP

In Thailand, Buddhist funerals can last up to 100 days — but the coronavirus pandemic is forcing families to drastically tone down their traditions.

Sprinkling rose and marigold petals over cremated bone fragments as a monk chanted, Pakawat Jityomnant reflected on a conundrum unique to the Covid-19 era. Had he adequately paid respect to his late father, while ensuring his last rites did not contribute to the disease spreading?

With virus infections on the rise in Thailand, the family opted to compress patriarch Wichai’s final farewell to a one-day affair — compared with the usual 72 hours or more.

“Coming to the temple is dangerous. Even the monks themselves are afraid,” Pakawat, a Bangkok antiques trader, told AFP.

About 20 family members and close friends gathered at the Bang Peng Tai temple in Bangkok to light incense sticks and pray for Wichai’s spirit.

The former engineer died peacefully in his sleep last week, aged 76, after struggling with diabetes and heart conditions in his senior years.

“I don’t want to disturb my dad’s friends coming to the funeral because they’re so old, like 70,” Pakawat said, adding he was worried about their fragile health and the risk of infection.

‘Maybe it’s just destiny’

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases prompted a partial lockdown in Bangkok earlier this month. Thailand initially appeared to have escaped the worst of the virus, registering about 4,000 total cases in November.

But an outbreak last month at a seafood market has mushroomed, with infections now detected in 60 of the kingdom’s 77 provinces. The caseload had risen to 11,262 as of Thursday.

Thawornthammanusit, an abbot at the Bang Peng Tai temple, noted funeral attendance numbers were down to 30-40 mourners, from the usual 100 or more.

“It’s understandable, people wouldn’t want to mingle with other people, even if it’s people they’re familiar with,” he told AFP.

He said Buddhist temples had had to adapt to an economic downturn — fewer worshippers and funerals mean fewer donations — but that they were managing to stay afloat.

The principles underpinning the religion, such as karma, should bring solace, he added.

“Everyone must die, even if we don’t have this virus, everybody must die from something else anyway.

“Our religion doesn’t teach people to beg and wish (for the virus to go away). Buddhism only teaches people to do good deeds, avoid committing bad deeds.”

As Pakawat prepared to scatter his father’s ashes into the sea, he was philosophical about the uncertainty ahead as Thailand struggles to get its infection rate under control.

“In the end, maybe it’s just destiny,” he said.

© Agence France-Presse

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