Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Et in Arcadia, Ego

I’ve been to lots of Thai funerals. The chanting, the snacks, the muted good cheer. Today I went to one where the dead guy was a friend of mine. It was a first.

I liked this guy. He was more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and he spoke pretty good English, he might have been homosexual, whatever, for some reason he enjoyed my company, and I certainly enjoyed his. Check out the picture that accompanies this post. That’s less than a month ago, the whole Law staff, along with some faculty, had a big party weekend in Pattaya, he was one of the “Masters of Ceremony” kind of guys. He also was my Xerox connection when I needed handouts for my classes. I saw him all the time. He was very sociable. Well now he’s dead.

And it only happened yesterday. He was working, nothing unusual, until four o’clock or so, when he told his secretary that he was very tired and that he was going to lay down on the couch for a while. She thought nothing of it until ten minutes went by and she heard the death-rattle. By the time she’d crossed the floor to the couch he’d turned green, stone dead.

He was about fifty-three. Heart attack, most likely, there’s no autopsies here, could have been a cerebral hemorrhage, maybe an aneurism. I’m no doctor.

I’ve been to lots of Thai funerals, but this is the first time I’ve seen the peculiar custom of “watering” the body. He was set out on a table with his face exposed, covered by a red cloth up to his chest; he was dressed but you could see the stitches roughly closing the gutting-gash up past his adam’s-apple. His left hand was extended over a large ceremonial vessel. His wrist was wrapped in the typical Thai flower wreaths. Hundreds of people lined up, kneel-walking the last ten feet to the body, were given a small ceremonial cup with water and flower petals, and poured the water over his bare hand. Some country boys actually clasped the hand as they poured. I took my turn and I must say, it’s an affecting way to say goodbye.

Sunday I’ll go to the burning of the body, I’ve never been to one of those either. Funerals are much more serious affairs when you actually liked the loved one.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling us about him. I think I would have liked to have known him, too.
How fragile and fickle is life. Did he have any idea yesterday morning as he dressed that it would be the last time he'd ever do so? Who expects to die at 53?

How strange that his death is known by people on the other side of the planet. (Many more than will know or care when I die.) That idea would tickle him I'm sure. If you can, wash his hand for me too.

How differently we treat death in the West. It's hush-hush, hurry-up, get that stiff out of sight and underground... It's as if we are ashamed of death, like it's some weakness. Something to be hidden. Denied.
The funeral cosmetics are so grotesque. I barely recognized my father in his coffin. The open casket.
I still recall a funeral mass in St. Fidelis when I was an altar boy over 45 years ago, the saddest I've ever seen. A "retarded" (Down Syndrome) young boy cried aloud, clasping and hugging the casket of his dead mother, unable to understand death, to comprehend. His mourning was the most genuine I've ever seen. Why can't I be allowed to grieve like that?


fred c said...

Grieving was the backdrop of all of my holidays as a boy. My grandmother owned a funeral parlor in Astoria, and death takes no holidays. The worst one was an eighteen year old Italian boy who'd gotten a GTO for his birthday and wrecked it right away and died. His family wailed like arabs all day, or like Italians I guess. It was Christmas, I think, one of the big holidays. Thirty of my immediate family were upstairs laughing and drinking pitchers of Manhattans, hold the vermouth please, I'm on a diet.

I've never been good at grieving myself.