A post from Josh, who is currently near the Burmese border…
When I came to the village the last thing I expected to be doing on my first night was attending a funeral. But that is where I found myself on Monday night.
A senior member of the local community had died, aged eighty, and the village was alive like I had never seen before. The usual population of fifty to one hundred people had swelled to three or four times that size.
Although the deceased had passed away at 2am that morning, word had spread quickly and the funeral was already in full swing when I arrived at 7pm that night. Upon learning of his death the whole community had leapt into action. A management committee had been formed, with a sub-committee for ensuring all relevant communities and family members were contacted and coordinating the financial and in-kind contributions from family, community and other well-wishers. Such efficiency would be pretty impressive in the West. In a small, poor village on the dusty borderlands of Thailand it is amazing.
People were arriving every hour, on foot and on motorcycle, to pay their respects. The deceased was a former leader of one of the semi-autonomous states inside Burma that are controlled by local militia forces. My queries as to why the former leader of a Burmese state would be living in a small village inside Thailand were met with those special kind of Asian smiles which meant that people knew but felt uncomfortable discussing with an outsider.
Given his stature within the community, people from all over the area had come to our village to attend the funeral. Those normally forced to stay within the confines of the refugee camp were given special allowance to leave, and it seemed like almost everyone had taken the opportunity to make their own pilgrimage.
Members of the local armed militia operating within Burma had also been given tacit approval by the Thai authorities to slip across the border to attend. Although they were not allowed to bring their weapons with them, each militia-man wore their standard issue camoflauge uniform. Some with the addition of a beret or a wide-brimmed hat, cocked on one side. Their presence gave a slightly unsettling feeling to the night.
I did my best to steer clear of the men in green, and sat myself down at the back of the large community garden where the event was being held. Apart from some odd looks from some of the older people, my presence was generally accepted with little comment. Much like weddings the world over, the old men all sat at the back and drank, whilst the youngsters danced, sang and socialised. The local community cultural troups had all been invited to perform, the women cloaked in red and the men wearing smart white tunics. The dancing, repetitive and zorba-esque, was accompanied by gongs, flutes and drums. Each troup came, performed and was shortly replaced by another troupe. Without pause it continued – all night, judging by the banging gongs and drums that kept me awake.
The funeral itself was a multi-day affair. For four days and three nights the body sits in-situ in the house of his family. The relative length of the traditional funeral allows all relatives to come and pay their respects. The word amongst the villagers was that the deceased had a son living in America. He was expected to make it just in time for the third day.
The body itself lay in the bamboo hut in which he lived. The house was decorated with flowers, religious talismans, neon lights and wreaths – reflecting the ambiguous and tolerant nature of religion in this part of Asia. Members of all of the local religious communities – Buddhist, Roman Catholic and Animist – attend the funeral to pay their respects and pray for the soul of the deceased. This occurs regardless of the faith of the deceased or their family. I am not sure if this was a way of appeasing all community members, and thus ensuring social harmony, or a very strategic attempt to cover all bases for the afterlife.
After spending a couple of hours taking in the festival atmosphere, it was decided we should head back home. My fellow attendees would be required to attend each night of the funeral, and with another three days left it was important to conserve their energy. As for me, I don’t think I will make it back to the funeral. The night of the funeral I had strange, disconcerting dreams about the death of a friend. Perhaps tonight I will leave the ‘celebrating’ to my colleagues and opt for a more cheerful activity like watching DVDs. Three trips to a funeral in one week is a little bit more than I think I need.