People around the world treat death differently. Each country has its own way of handling the dead, funerals, and other ceremonies — some are fast and simple, while others are lengthy and detailed. But what should you do if you have to attend a Thai funeral?
Unlike the West, the Thais cremate dead bodies, Buddhist style. However, the rest of the ritual can be seen as an extended version of Christian funerals. People dress in black or white, listen to religious chants, and hear tales of the dead’s past achievements from their family and relatives.
Nevertheless, Thai funerals can be more detailed and complex than you imagine. So, read on to learn more about how to behave in this mournful ceremony.
What happens at Thai funerals?
Short answer: a lot.
When someone passes away in Thailand, the family has to plan out numerous things. And it can be confusing to list them all in one go.
One way to make things less complicated is to divide the Thai funeral into 4 phases: the pre-funeral, pre-cremation day, cremation day, and post-cremation day.
That’s right, Thai funerals take place across multiple days. And sometimes, even weeks.
As a foreigner, it would be rare for you to organize the funeral yourself. You will most likely be one of the guests. So, don’t worry too much about the first and final phases. However, it doesn’t hurt to know about them.
Without further ado, it’s time to learn more.
The pre-funeral phase
This phase can happen in an hour to half a day, depending on how famous the dead are.
After all the legal procedures — like notifying the officials, licensing the death certificate, and others — the family of the dead will send the message to everyone.
This “everyone” includes distant relatives, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and even known influential figures in the area. If the dead is an influential figure themselves, the family might have to inform a large crowd of this sad news.
This message can be sent in any way, whether by phone calls, text messages, emails, or even actual conversation. And the news itself acts as an invitation to the upcoming funeral.
Next, the organizer (the dead’s family) has to schedule the funeral.
Usually, Thai funerals start on the night a person dies. However, if the said person dies late at night, the ritual can start the night later.
And before it starts, the organizer has to decide how many nights they want to perform the “chanting ritual.” Normally, it takes place for 3-5 nights — depending on the family’s wealth and the dead’s fame.
They have to contact the temple, asking when the monks and the crematory are available. Then they schedule accordingly.
But what is the chanting ritual? Find out in the next phase.
The pre-cremation phase
This phase is where the Thai funeral actually starts. And it begins religiously.
After deciding how many days to perform the chanting ritual, the organizer puts the body into the coffin and moves it to the temple.
Once night falls, the guests would show up at the said temple to show respect to the dead. During this time, the attendee would prostrate in front of the coffin and listen to the “funeral sutras” from the monks.
These funeral sutras function in two ways. First, it calms the spirit of the dead, asking it to go to the next life in peace. Second, it reminds the living that death is inevitable. You must be aware of this future and appreciate your present.
And that is the chanting ritual: the nights that the monks chant funeral sutras for the dead and the living.
As mentioned, this ritual takes place for 3-5 days. And all the procedures are the same. But if everything’s the same, why multiple days?
The answer is “the guests are different.” Some guests might not be available on the first night, and others might be free only on the third night. So, to prevent people from missing out, the chanting ritual is extended.
And after that, it’s time for the cremation day.
The cremation day phase
This phase only takes one day to complete. And it usually happens in the afternoon.
The organizer may or may not offer food to the monks in the morning. This is done to boost their fortune after the loss of loved ones. But it’s not mandatory. After all, not all families can afford to hold a feast for the monks.
Later around noon, they move the coffin (with the body inside) to the crematory.
Before setting up the coffin for cremation, the organizer, accompanied by a monk, would “parade” the body around the crematory 3 times. And they do this counterclockwise.
Side note: parading around a building in a temple is a part of many religious rituals. However, Buddhists would reserve counterclockwise for funeral and death-related ceremonies. It is believed that “counterclockwise” is the path of ghosts and spirits.
In the early afternoon, the guest would come to attend the cremation. The organizer would recite the dead’s past achievements, reminding everyone of who they were. After that, they would distribute paper flowers to all the attendees.
Then, the guests would walk up to the crematory and place the flower in front of the dead. This is done to pay the final respect to the dead. And these flowers will be burnt together with the body and the coffin.
When everyone has put down the flowers, the MC will light the fire, burning the body and ending the cremation phase.
The post-cremation phase
The morning after the cremation, the organizers would return to the crematory to receive the ash and bone of the dead.
They would put the remains in an urn as a keepsake. This is the only thing left to remind them that the dead were once a part of their life.
Usually, Thai people would keep this urn on an altar in their house. However, you can scatter the ash in a river or other places. This action symbolizes freedom from the circle of life and death.
But if you want to keep the bones somewhere outside your house, you can build a grave at the temple.
You can look at the Thai grave as a miniature of a pagoda. Both have a similar structure. The difference is in size.
After taking care of the dead’s remains, nothing would happen until much later.
100 days after the cremation, the dead’s family would organize another ceremony offering food to monks. This is done in memorial of the dead and also to bless the fate of their spirit.
Thai people believe that the soul of the dead will receive a judgment around 50-100 days after they die. The judge will tell them where their next reincarnation will be: earth, heaven, or hell.
So, offering food to the monk is said to increase the chance the spirit will reincarnate as an angel in heaven.
And that marks the end of the Thai funeral.
▸ READ MORE about ▸ Thai Traditions
The legend of Buddhist funerals
Like most religious ceremonies, funerals have a tale for their rituals.
The legend says that Buddha could have chosen to live forever, but he chose to pass away.
He did that to send a message to his disciple that “nothing lasts forever.” Even he would one day be gone.
Most people consider this teaching to be the final and core of Buddhism. Since nothing lasts forever, you need to make the most out of your present. Or else it will eventually be gone.
And when the Buddha breathed his last breath, his body remained until all his disciples had gathered. Then his body automatically lit up and burnt.
The remains of his bones are said to be crystallized. They were shared all over the world and kept as religious relics.
Buddhist funerals probably copied the passing of Buddha and pasted it into their procedure. The multiple-day chanting rituals, the funeral sutras, and the cremation. They all reflect what happened during his death.
What do you do at Thai funerals?
As mentioned, you would attend the funeral as a guest most of the time. So, you don’t have to get involved in the first and final phases. Being there for the chanting and cremation ritual is enough.
However, you can and should do plenty of things as an attendee.
1. Wear black or white
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way.
Wearing black or white is mandatory. No matter how you look at it, wearing colored clothes is considered disrespectful.
The only exception is when you wear an official uniform. But it’s still wise to get change before attending.
Are white T-shirts and jeans acceptable? Yes. But only at the chanting ritual. You can be a bit casual in the pre-cremation phase. But on cremation day, please wear something more formal.
Of course, you don’t need a tuxedo and bow tie. A shirt and a pair of slack pants would suffice. But no one will stop you if you opt for a prom dress. Just keep your skin covered.
2. Offer some money
This is not mandatory but recommended.
If you have a consistent source of income, you should help out the organizer financially.
Keep in mind that every funeral has a cost. And sometimes, the organizer has to spend a large sum of money to make the funeral happen. They might need help with their budget.
There’s even a saying in Thailand: “The dead sell the living.” This phrase means the funeral cost is so high that the family of the dead could go bankrupt. So, a bit of your generosity can help them out.
You can offer them money whenever you enter the funeral area. But please, put the money in a white envelope. Handing the cash in public might cause a commotion. People will judge you if you offer too low or too high even though the value is relative.
The question of how much is a bit tricky. It depends on your wealth and how close you are to the dead or the organizer.
If you’re wealthy enough, it’s recommended to go for 300 THB plus. But if you’re short on money, 1-2 hundred is fine.
There is no limit to the amount you can offer. But please keep it appropriate. Don’t stuff five hundred 1,000 THB notes into the envelope. Want to offer big bucks? Talk to the organizer and transfer the money online.
3. Pay respect and condolence properly
Other than wearing appropriate attire, there are things you should perform correctly at Thai funerals.
First, don’t forget to express your condolences verbally to the dead’s family. Say “Sia Jai Duai” (เสียใจด้วย) is the easiest way to do so. It means “sorry (for your loss)” in this context.
Second, light the incense and prostrate in front of the dead.
This step is the key moment of a chanting ritual. After expressing your condolences to the organizer, head straight to the coffin. Light an incense stick, plug it down on the dirt pot, and prostrate before the dead.
The prostration acts as a way you express your apology and gratitude to the dead. If you had wronged the dead before, this is the last chance to say sorry. And if the dead had helped you out before, this is also the final “thank you.”
When you prostrate, remember to keep your hand clasped. You only flatten your hand when you greet a monk or pay respect to Buddha’s images.
4. Offer to be the “Ritual President”
This is optional and a little extra, but you can do it if you are close to the dead’s family.
Each night of the chanting ritual, there are “presidents.” These people are like VIPs who act as leaders, leading the guest to perform all the funeral procedures.
Of course, you don’t literally lead them. There’s an MC for that. You only guide them in the names.
Being a president will give you a chance to show everyone how important the dead were to you.
Your name would be announced as the president of the night. You would be the one offering gifts (new pieces of clothes) to the monks. This might be a bit too Buddhist for anyone of other religions. So, if you’re uncomfortable with that, you can send a Thai delegate to do that for you.
Another unique part is that you don’t have to be the president alone. You can offer to be the president as a group too. So, gather friends or family members and show everyone how significant the dead were to all of you.
More about life, less about death.
You might notice that Thai funerals are not all about the dead.
The chanting ritual focuses more on the living than the one in the coffins. The sutras themselves remind you to live your life to the fullest. And even the cremation can be seen as a way to let go of the past.
So, if you have a chance, attend Thai funerals. It might not be fun, but it will at least teach you a few things in life. Or just go for the experience. That would be okay too.
▸ CHECK OUT our Complete Guide on ▸ Thai Culture
THINKING ABOUT A TRIP TO THAILAND?
I am working on a FREE Thailand Travel Guide with a FULL 7 Day Itinerary. Be the first to receive it!
Thank you for signing up.
Something went wrong.