Farewell to a Good Friend – A Funeral in Thailand

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Last November, almost a year ago now, I lost another good friend of mine. His name was Tha-baang. From the time I first met him, he always went out of his way to make me feel at home among the Thai people and their culture. We shared many good times together in Northeast Thailand. He even taught me how to work in the rice fields.

Tha-baang

The events surrounding his death are still surreal to me. I wrote a portion of this post the night he died. It took me until now to finish the story.

A Farewell to my friend, Tha-baang…

November 19th, 2012

Tonight, I had to perform CPR on a good friend. The world lost a wonderful person. For my own sanity, I wish to share the story with you.

I was lying in bed reading a book when my girl walked into the room. It was around 11:10 pm.

“Tha-baang sick. We have to take him to the hospital. You want to come check on him first? We look him then we come home. Yai Lai say he feel not good.”

I typically don’t have the patience to show sympathy for a case of the sniffles and contemplated staying put. However, Tha-baang was my friend and over the years had put in a lot of effort on my behalf. The least I could do was get my ass up and walk a few houses down to show my support.

We started walking when my girl’s cousin pulled up beside us on a motorbike. We jumped on and were dropped off at the beginning of the driveway to a small hut where Tha-baang was staying. It wasn’t actually his home, but rather a small elevated platform with a thatch roof. It was right next to the rice field where he worked every day.

The long drive was lined with trees and vegetation which made it too dark to see the path. My old lady cracked open a cell phone and illuminated the way. As we approached the elevated wooden platform, I saw that Tha-baang’s wife was there along with another family member. Tha-baang was lying around the corner where at first, I couldn’t see him. As I peered around the corner to take a gander and maybe see what kind of joke he would tell, the gravity of the situation hit me.

Tha-baang was lying on his back with his arms stretched out to the sides. For a split second I wanted to believe that he was passed out drunk. But anyone who has been in my line of work has seen many dead men, and I’m no exception. I reached out and grabbed for a radial pulse and realized his arms were cold. I was temporarily in a state of shock. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t function. I just stared at him in disbelief. We had partied together only days before. He had sung a song for the crowd. He had been a big hit with everyone. He had just worked half of the day in the rice field.

How in the hell could he be dead?

While it has been several years since my paramedic days, the basic skills are simple—airway, breathing, and circulation, or what they refer to as your ABC’s. With no equipment, it is hard to screw that up. However, my next course of action was to start yelling at him to wake up.

After a few seconds in the black, I finally convinced myself that it was for real. He wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. I looked back at my girl and shook my head to tell her that the situation wasn’t good. After a few more moments of inaction, I finally came to my senses.

Mouth to mouth, I breathed a few breaths into him. The smell of Thai rice whiskey was nearly too much to handle as Tha-baang was a heavy drinker. I almost threw up. I caught my breath and then started chest compressions.

The family didn’t seem to grasp the situation and kept telling Tha-baang to wake up. I yelled at my old lady to call an ambulance and continued CPR. I breathed a couple of more breaths into him and it sounded like there were ten gallons of fluid in Tha-baang’s lungs. I knew my attempts were futile. I knew that nothing was going to bring him back but I had a dozen Thai people staring at me as if I was a miracle worker.

The ambulance arrived in a matter of minutes and three beautiful young nurses ran to the scene. They were dressed in typical nurse uniforms which mirrored nurses in America from the 1950’s. They were a bit surprised to see a farang (foreigner) in nothing but a pair of shorts doing CPR. One nurse took over compressions while another pricked Tha-baang’s finger and checked his blood sugar. The male driver brought the stretcher and through teamwork, we heaved Tha-baang onto the mattress. They soon had him in the back of the ambulance. One of the nurses quickly popped an IV while another hooked him up to an automatic defibrillator. They rolled out with Tha-baang’s wife and her sister in the back.

We made it to the hospital in time to see a nurse come out and hand Tha-baang’s wife a piece of paper. She scurried off around the corner. According to my girl, it was a prescription for some medicine they needed for the rescesitation efforts.

What? No epinephrine on hand so they have to send the soon-to-be widow around the corner to the pharmacy? This wasn’t America, I told myself.

After a fifteen minute wait, the word came out that Tha-baang was dead. To my surprise, there was no hoopin’ and hollerin. The only tears I saw came from Tha-baang’s step-son.

After a game plan was discussed, I was directed to roll with the crew to Tha-baang’s house. Upon arrival, it was explained that we had to quickly clean everything. Within an hour or so, they would bring Tha-baang to stay at his home for three to four days, prior to taking him to the temple for cremation. Once Tha-baang arrived, we could not do any more cleaning. As we entered the darkened structure, which by American standards is more like a tractor shed, it hit me even more. There, lying on a shelf, were three pairs of pants I had given him to wear, along with a belt. Matter of fact, I had just given him a new shirt earlier in the day as well.

We cleaned the home for about an hour. More people began to gather outside as we worked. Two men arrived, who my girl explained worked for the “funeral home.” They inspected the house and then put the call in for the ambulance to bring Tha-baang.

Upon arrival, they unloaded Tha-baang on a backboard and carried him into the front room. As I was focused on the action inside the house, I didn’t see the string of firecrackers land at my feet.

Pow Pow! Pow Pow! Pow Pow Pow!

It caught me off guard and I jumped backward over a small stream of water flowing alongside the house. A couple of more strings of firecrackers signaled that the deceased had arrived at his home.

I watched as they dressed Tha-baang in an orange suit which was the same color as the robes the monks wear. A discussion ensued outside the front door which was over the fact that the casket / refrigerator would not fit. After what appeared to be an argument of sorts, it was decided that they would jackhammer around the door frame to widen the opening.

As I listened to the debate, I was told that it was time for us to roll. Our driver had to get up for work in a couple of hours and there was nothing else we could do, anyway. The ride back to our room was in silence.

The next day when I arrived, the first thing that stood out was the fact that the door frame had indeed, been jackhammer’d out. Inside the front room was a beautifully adorned metal casket of sorts which contained a refrigeration unit. The exterior sparkled with a kaleidoscope of colors and designs. The low hum of the compressor could be heard as I approached. At the head of the casket was a shrine with Thai Buddhist incense burning. I was instructed to burn three incense and knock on the head of the casket to get Tha-baang’s attention. I knocked a few times and called Tha-baang’s name. I told him to wake up because I had come to visit. I then lit the three sticks of incense, held them between my hands in a prayer-like gesture, and said a few more words to him.

I stood up and peered over the top of the casket. A small window about eight-inches-square allowed me to view Tha-baang. He looked so peaceful just lying there. A moment of sadness suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks and I had to conceal a tear as it slid down my face. I had to leave the room and get some fresh air. I wanted to just be alone for a minute but it wasn’t possible. There was a plethora of people everywhere you looked. Large tents had been set up with tables and chairs for the visitors. One tent contained the kitchen area where a dozen little-old-ladies were pumping out various Thai dishes. It was a big event.

For the next three days, it was a twenty-four-hour non-stop gathering of family and friends. Every afternoon, a cadre of monks would arrive for a ceremony of sorts involving chanting, singing, and ceremonial rituals. I tried to stay abreast of the symbolism of each ceremony but there was just too much happening.

On the third day, it was time to take Tha-baang to the temple for cremation. My girl gave me a brief synopsis of the upcoming events.

“Today we have to burn Tha-baang at the temple.”

A small green pickup truck arrived with several men riding in the back. After disembarking, they and a few men who were already there carried Tha-baang’s casket outside. The crew wrestled it onto the back of the truck. The box was longer than the bed of the truck so it hung over the tailgate by a couple of feet. It lay slanted toward the back to where I was worried that it would slide out.

My girl explained to me that we would all walk in procession with the truck to the temple. The close relatives would touch the truck as they walked. For some reason, I felt as though that was where I needed to be. As I staked out a spot near the bed of the truck on the driver’s side…

Pow Pow! Pow Pow! Pow Pow Pow!

Firecrackers were being thrown to let everyone know the procession had started. Once again, it caught me off-guard and scared the shit out of me. However, I would rather endure firecrackers landing at my feet than have to re-live what happened next. The most sad and somber music you’ve ever imagined kicked off as the truck started to roll forward at a snail’s pace. It was too much for me to handle. Tears rolled down my cheek and mixed with the dust on my face.

The walk to the temple was surreal. I will never forget it as long as I live.

A Funeral in Thailand - The Walk to the Temple

When we arrived at the temple, we all circled the cremation chamber three times.

A Funeral in Thailand - Circling the Temple

The men unloaded Tha-baang from the casket and placed him on a steel table which would later be wheeled inside.

A series of rituals by the monks ensued and afterward everyone had a chance to say one last goodbye. I walked up the steps and bid farewell to my friend. The men pushed Tha-baang into the chamber and the fire begin to burn. As this was happening, a rocket was lit which was attached to a guide wire.

A Funeral in Thailand

It screamed from one end of the area to the other, where it ignited a second rocket. The second rocket screamed toward another area of the venue.

I think there was only one more to fly in this manner before someone lit a series of rockets that were pointed skyward. Now, this is where things got crazy.

The first rocket that was supposed to go skyward took a hard left and chased five men. They scattered and after a few seconds of chaos the rocket exploded in their midst. The rest of the spectators were laughing their asses off, up until the second rocket launched and took a hard right into the crowd. Men, women, and children ran for cover as it screamed towards them. After it exploded, there was more laughter. The last rocket pointed skyward actually accomplished its mission and gained altitude.

It exploded high in the air and made for a beautiful finale. It was as if Tha-baang planned things to go down that way. It was his last joke. He left everyone with one last memory of a good time.

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