Death and Monkhood

It’s been a while since I posted a blog now, but I haven’t stopped my planetary rituals. I took a long pause after the passing of my grandmother. I was pretty close to my grandma and she basically helped my mom raise my siblings and me in various parts of our lives due to paternal relationship issues.

She was already in bad health and had a small heart attack a few weeks prior to her death, but it still came as a shock. I flew out the next day halfway across the country to go attend her last few days before cremation. My grandma was a Thai Theravada Buddhist and she brought us into that culture and religion as clueless kids attending Thai cultural festivals and visiting the monks at the local Wat (temple). It was a strong hope that she would get the rites and ceremonies that she wanted and I’m glad that my uncles who are much more enveloped in the religion were able to coordinate with the monks for everything needed.

It’s a fairly common Thai custom for youngest males across the generations related to the deceased to become ordained as a monk for a short amount of time to earn good merit for the person who has passed. This is something I found out a day or two after flying to my home state and I quickly and happily obliged. I would gladly make my own sacrifices to help my grandma pass along.

The night before her cremation ceremonies, my uncle, cousin, and I shaved our hair in preparation for the morning’s ordination ceremony. This would make it quicker and easier for the monks since they wouldn’t have to cut it for us.

The next morning we woke up early and made our way to the Wat that I’ve known for most of my life to meet the monks. Three of the monks sat us down in front of the large Buddha statue in one of the public worship halls and we proceeded to pass items like robes, incense, and candles back and forth while receiving blessings from the monks. We did a lot of chanting and prostrating, repeating back the Pali and Thai chants the head monk intoned towards us. After what seemed about 30 minutes of chanting and prayer, the monks presented us with our robes and helped us change into our new roles as novice monks.

After this, we went back into the living area for the monks and talked over tea. Eventually, lunch time came around and we took our seats back in the main worship hall among all of the other monks and passed along a massive selection of food the lay folk had brought to feed the monks. I saw one of my grandmother’s best friends who was also from the same place in Thailand as she was. She had such a big warm smile seeing us ordained in honor of my grandma. There was some more chanting before eating and the lay people present did some response chanting and then sat in silent prayer while we began to eat. A short time later the lay people all began to take their lunch from the leftover food. It was a very interesting experience.

After we ate I helped one of the monks wash the eating utensils and large alms bowls they ate from. Not long after that, the head monk led me upstairs to collect books on Buddhism that we would bring with us to the funeral home for the people who weren’t Buddhist to look through. With a stack of books in my arms, we all loaded up into cars and were drove off to do the last rites for my grandmother.

The three monks who ordained us sat in a small arrangement of chairs at the head of my grandmother’s casket with us novice monks sat right behind them. My other uncle had placed a white string on my grandma’s chest and led it up into an alms bowl to rest until the monks needed it. The chanting began and went on for about 5 or 10 minutes until the string was unwound and passed along the front and back to us, all of us monks holding it to pass along blessings to the deceased.

More chanting followed and the string was then passed back to the monks in the front. At this point various close family members like my mom, aunt, grandpa, cousins, and siblings came forth and held packaged monks robes that were to be donated to the monks and Wat, into the casket to pass the good merits on to my grandma. Then, starting with the monks, we all went up and took a dried flower from a large bowl and placed it inside the casket giving our last farewells.

Once all family and friends had placed their flowers, the casket was closed, the string still placed inside, and each of us monks once again took hold of the string, leading the procession outside to the hearse to place her inside. My ordained uncle rode in the car with them as one monk had to keep hold of the string and ride with the casket.
Once we all arrived at the crematory we again took hold of the string and lead the casket over to the large furnace. At this point, the string was pulled from the casket and the casket was loaded into the furnace, door closed. Then more chanting started, loud vibrating chanting that echoed through the large warehouse-like building even over the hum of the furnace that was being readied. At what seemed to be the peak of chanting, my uncle pressed the button to start the flames.

From here, family and friends lingered to talk and support one another. The head monk that I’ve known since I was a small boy came over and held my arm and spoke to me about how good of a life my grandmother lived and the impermanence of life. We then loaded up and headed back to the Wat, this time with family, so that we could be released from the Sangha (monkhood).

We all entered the much larger public worship hall that is typically used for the large crowds that come for festivals and events and the three of us took our place before the three monks in front of another large Buddha statue, prostrating ourselves three times in honor of Buddha’s teaching, the Sangha, and our own Buddha nature. We did more chanting, repeating, and prostrating for probably another 5 minutes before we were released to go change back into our regular clothing.

Once we returned to our spots, the monks chanted more and gave all the family present blessings, flinging holy water over us. We then sat and talked for a while, slowly making our way outside to the beautiful temple grounds.

It was an amazing experience that I am grateful that I was able to take part in. There was something special about being able to participate in the last rites and ceremonies for my own grandmother to hopefully see her off to the next life.

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