The sound of the funeral chanting droned on in the background. I watched as Nok sat stoically among members of her family, responding to people who came over to speak with her. My heart ached for her. Nok has discovered the truth about God, and I knew this Buddhist ceremony was a strain for her. She was doing her best to participate while staying true to her Lord. There was a lot for her to sort out following the tragic death of her only child. When we arrived at the temple, she met us, assuring us that she was okay because she knew Oom was resting safely in Jesus’ care.
Finally the chanting stopped, and Nok’s family presented gifts to the monks. Then most of the monks left to go about other business. Funerals in Buddhist culture are major events that can last many days. The primary purpose of the proceedings is threefold—to remember and honor the deceased, to increase the merit of the deceased, and to ensure that the spirit of the deceased does not return to trouble the living. The family is responsible for feeding all those who attend, presenting many gifts to the monks and planning all the details of the ceremony. As the mother of the deceased, Nok was expected to fully participate in the formalities. It was a real struggle for this new Christian to determine which traditions were harmless and which would be a betrayal of her Jesus. She longed for the fellowship and assurance that comes with a Christian ceremony.
The head monk granted permission for us to hold a brief Christian ceremony there in the temple. Many members of our church came and assembled in a close circle on the floor of the temple in front of the casket to sing and praise the God who offers the free gift of eternal life to those who love Him. After several songs, Pastor Chris and Pastor Aipiset offered words of comfort from the Bible. Then together we bowed our heads and prayed for Nok and her family. After a final song, we hugged our dear sister and one by one slipped away into the night.
The next day there was to be more chanting for the cremation ceremony. We arrived just as the casket was being moved from the temple to the crematorium. We stood with Nok while most of the family and many of Oom’s friends held the string attached to his coffin and followed the monks in the obligatory three circuits of the crematorium before the casket was carried up the steps and placed on a platform in front of the door to the crematorium. Then the family and guests moved to seats in front of the orange-clad monks on a chanting platform where more ceremonies occurred and more gifts were given. Nok hung back, standing at the rear of the group.
As the chanting came to an end, six dancers appeared and performed a dance depicting gifts to the spirits. As the dance ended and the dancers moved away, paper flowers were passed out to all attendees. Then the cover of the coffin was removed. One by one, the monks approached the coffin and poured coconut water onto the body while accepting more gifts. After this, the attendees moved forward, laying flowers and gifts of money in the casket and speaking briefly to the parents. Then, in what seemed like a rush, Oom’s picture was handed to his mother, and the cover was placed back on the casket. As this was happening, young people stationed around the perimeter threw little packages of coins and candy into the crowd. Then the casket was pushed into the fires of the crematorium, the door was closed, and people moved away and left.
The immediate family huddled together below the crematorium steps. Oom’s girlfriend began to wail. Nok tried to comfort her, but as her own eyes moved up to the smoke coming from the chimney, her tears began to flow. A couple of us stood close by to comfort Nok. Deep sadness and profound loss were written on her face, but her confidence and faith in the Lord shone through. Gradually, we moved away from the crematorium and then dispersed to our homes. Tomorrow the family would return to gather Oom’s ashes.
The contrast between Nok’s quiet strength and confidence in the midst of her sadness and the fear and hopelessness of the rest of the family was profound. It is good news that death is only a temporary sleep; that salvation comes not through our merit but through Jesus; that spirits of the dead do not suffer and cannot come back to trouble the living; that Jesus is coming to end death and restore families.
Please pray that God’s Spirit will be poured out in the lives of our members in Khon Kaen and that many more of our Buddhist friends will discover the eternal hope and freedom from fear that comes with knowing our God.