It’s commonly understood that once a person is buried, it is considered a final resting place for most culture, but not for the Thai and Lao culture as I’ve heard and understood. As for this story told by Pah Un, Wat Don Cemetery is located in Sathon district in Bangkok, Thailand. It’s well known in the area, and the graveyard contains burial remains of people of Chinese heritage. It is mainly for those that pass away and have no relatives to come and claim their bodies, such as those that die of a sudden death like a car accident or any type of accident, which is considered ‘Tai Hong’, and their bodies would be buried here temporary until being dug back up again to be cleaned, and performed a final ceremony of cremation, those spirits would then consider to be rested in peace. I think it’s a bit shocking to the Westerners, but very common practice in the Southeast Asia region.
This was a story told by Pah Un…
I remember seeing something similar to this on TV, where they would take skeletons, which I remember vividly, was seeing the skull and other parts and washed it in an aluminum basin, very similar to washing vegetables, or clothing, but how they actually are doing it, I’ve never seen. I wanted to be a part of it, probably would get all kinds of ‘Boun’ (charity), as they promised in their poster, at the moment I’m just full of greed for ‘Boun’.
After putting some thoughts into it, I called and asked my friends to join me for such a noble events, to go and clean, clear a cemetery. I tried to explain the process to them as best I could without scaring them. I asked, asked, and asked; surprisingly none would volunteer to go with me. The majority would say that they are afraid of ghost, afraid that the image might stay in their mind, afraid that they wouldn’t be able to go to sleep, and even asked if I’m not afraid. I told them that there’s nothing to be afraid of because the events will take place during the daytime, but bottom line, they all told me ‘If you’re not afraid, then go by yourself!’
After begging, pleading, and nothing seems to work, I decided to go alone. Before I went, I asked my brother the basic information because he used to be a Chinese monk and is very familiar with their custom, and his friend helped with an event similar to this before. He told me to wear white attire, and make sure to pick up ‘yun’ (a piece of paper or cloth to protect me from ghost spirit), and to carry it with me at all time. My thought is that the ‘yun’ is probably to protect me from the bad ghosts that are around that area; there should be some because we have bad people, I’m sure there are such thing as bad ghosts or spirits. As for wearing all white, probably to symbolize purity since it’s a Chinese charitably event (I didn’t ask, just came up with the explanation myself) because almost every Chinese occasion that I’ve seen, they all wore white, such as ‘Gin Jae’ that recently passed (Chinese Vegetable Festival, for 10 days of every year, Chinese abstain from eating any types of animal product. The Chinese communities all over the world observe this custom. This is to announce to people that the time for showing gratitude to the animal kingdom has come.)
Cleaning and clearing cemetery doesn’t happen every year, only when the cemetery is completely full, then they’ll clean everything out to make room for the new arrival of the decease, mostly for those that have no relatives. This is not to be performed just because, and to dig whenever one feels like it. To clean and clear the cemetery is to take the human remains that don’t have relative from the graves or from the coffins in the storage area, to wash and clean, and after that then they would perform a cremation ceremony both in Chinese and Thai, which is a step by step process. As for the length of the event, it’s depending on how many corpse they have to clean, but this time it was 36 days total.
The day that I went to help was the second day, I didn’t show up for the first day because they were performing an opening ceremony of the cemetery, as to how they did that I didn’t ask. I thought it might be to invite all spirits to come and receive the ‘Boun’, because they performed all kind of chanting ceremony that day.
Most of you probably are wondering why these corpses didn’t have relatives, let us just say that everyone have relatives, but these people might have died in an accident and didn’t have any ID card with them therefore the officials couldn’t contact their relatives. Some might have had relatives that come to visit them every year but as time passed, the entire living relatives also passed away, therefore those then became corpses without relatives. Like this time, there was a body of a lady that was placed in a glass casket, they called her ‘Nang Farh’ (female angel), probably given this name to show her respect because it was strange that her body didn’t rot like most, she still has full set of long hair, and her corpse was about 70 years old. I asked around and found out that she was a 36 years old, Chinese woman who hung herself (you can still see her reddish pink tongue sticking out), at the time it happened, her relative was going to ship her body back to China, but there was a war at the time, therefore she was left behind. They also explained to me if this were a male, they would call him ‘Tavadar’ (male angel), who ever discover this type of body is considered to be very lucky, and would receive a lot of ‘Boun’ in return, for sure.
I only get to help for 2 days; the first day I arrived a bit late, almost noontime. Normally when I get there, I should have shown my respect to the ghost spirit of the area, and asked permission first, but since I was late, I totally forgot about doing that, but luckily I remembered to pick up ‘yun’ to carry with me at all time. I went straight to help, they divided us into groups of four or five and each group had an aluminum box about 2×3 feet, and inside had skeletons, and skull, which I believed it was for one corpse only. We cleaned the skeletons with rough textured paper towel; we didn’t use water to wash like what I’ve seen on TV. It was possible that these corpses had been here for quite sometime, therefore there were not much flesh attached to it at all, looked clean to me.
After all pieces were cleaned, then we arranged the skeletons into a shape of a human body the best that we could, after that then we burned some clothing articles made out of paper, then placed the skeletons and skull into a white bag made out of cloth. The place that we used for cleaning was on the floor; we placed a white sheet on the floor, and sat the skeletons and skull on it. We were not allowed to sit on the white sheet, at first I didn’t know and was ready to sit down until someone from our group told me that I couldn’t. I didn’t ask why, but my thought on it was that the spirit might feel as if we were sitting on top of him/her, therefore they gave us chairs to sit. The two corpses that I helped clean the first day were both male, we burned their article of clothings and placed their bones in individual bag. After that then we marched the bags (mainly the people in our group) to the crematory site, we had to shout aloud ‘Hoo, Heal, Hoo, Heal…’ until we get to a place that were prepared for us to put the bag down. My interpretation of the marching event was to tell the spirit that ‘you are clean now, and we are dropping you off to your final destination.’
They divided the bags into male section and female section, and after they had enough for that day, they then performed a chanting ceremony and sprinkled the bags with ‘Nom Moun’ (water of wisdom) from the monk. After the ceremony, we then carried the bags to a storage area, waiting for a cremation service at a later time.
The second day, we went to School Niphanvithaya, not too far from yesterday site. There were plots scattered along the school fence area, and they marked each plot with a red flag. We dug up the caskets; mostly the male in our group did the digging. The plot that I helped was a bit difficult because it was covered with tree roots, and by the time we got to the casket, it was so old and rotten, underneath it had water, we had to try to fish up the bones, piece by piece. After gathered all the pieces, then we washed and cleaned, this part was very similar to what I saw on TV.
The volunteers range varies in gender and age, there were children there also, and most came with their parents or grandparents. Some belong to certain foundations that volunteer to do this type of work on a regular basis. Some, like myself saw the poster, but I was told that certain poster would read ‘come help dig gold and money’, and if you see a tooth while digging, then you were supposed to call it ‘diamond’, you have to say everything in a positive way. If something smells bad while you were cleaning, or digging, then you can’t say ‘stink’, you have to say ‘the aroma of perfume’, then the smell might go away or lessen by a bit.
Let me just go ahead and tell you the most embarrassing moment, when I was engaging in a conversation with those that do this all the time, they told me stories of ghost, or corpses that they had encountered. I then said ‘the corpses that I helped clean were not very dirty, if they are ghost; they probably are not too scary. I’ve heard that the scariest ghost was at Wat Don Cemetery, I’m glad that we didn’t have to clean at that cemetery.’ They all looked at me and said, ‘Did you not know?’ I said ‘Know what?’ they said ‘Even though they called this place Sou Sond Thae Jewh, but most people know it as Wat Don Cemetery.’
‘Brrrrrrr!!!!!!!, How am I going to be able to sleep now?’
‘Sa Thu, to the ghost of Wat Don Cemetery, I’m just a translator, please don’t come and haunt me in any shape or form, Sa thu.’ Nye