Life at a Funeral

Kayla McCabe, 129 YinD

Last July, a girl from my community died unexpectedly. She went to school and lived in the city, but her family lives across the street from me and, over the past two years, I have become particularly close with them. I found out about her death the day I returned home from a few weeks of traveling with my mom. By that time, the funeral had come and gone and, apart from her cousins coming to my class with shaved heads after ordaining as monks in her memory, it seemed that everyone’s life had more or less returned to normal.

Fast forward to a morning in late October when a tent appeared in front of my house, followed by tables, chairs and later that evening the familiar sizzle and smells of the neighborhood women at work in the kitchen. I had just come back from a vacation and wanted to go to bed early, but ear-splitting Isaan music from giant speakers made that impossible, so instead I wandered out to my front gate and was immediately greeted and escorted over to a seat at the table. Like so many times before, I had absolutely no idea what was going on, just that everyone seemed to be celebrating something. Tables full of community members and visiting families traded stories, listening and laughing over plates of fresh sticky rice and fried chicken, welcoming any newcomers with wais and welcoming smiles. My counterpart arrived and took the seat next to me and I was finally able to get some answers. “Why is everyone here? Is it a holiday?” He gave me a funny look. “Don’t you remember? This family’s daughter died 100 days ago. We are here to remember her and make merit to her spirit.”

The 100 day ceremony was one that I had heard about but had never witnessed in person. I knew that, in general, Thai people tended to view death as an inevitability and did not openly mourn, but I did not expect an event related to a death to appear so joyous that I would mistake it for a celebration. However, upon further reflection, this makes perfect sense. These people were taking the opportunity to be together and appreciate each other’s company while sharing stories and memories of this girl that had been taken from them so soon. Rather than dwelling on her last moments, they instead focused on her 17 years of life – all of the people she had impacted and the times she had made them laugh. While they certainly wished they had more time with her, that did not diminish their joy at being able to know her. And as I sat there watching the love and reunion, my thoughts drifted to memories of a funeral I had attended just 5 short years ago.

One of my close friends from high school, Nick, passed away at the end our freshman year of college. His family waited until all of Nick’s friends had returned to our hometown for summer break before holding a memorial service. Losing Nick was hard for all of us, but I remember his memorial being a beautiful combination of mourning and remembrance mixed with a reunion of friends who hadn’t been together in months. People were invited to share stories and together we remembered Nick’s 18 years of life. We listened to stories from the girl who grew up next door to him and the girl who had a crush on him freshman year. His sister, his friends from college, and the friends from high school that knew him the way I did, all had something to say about the kind, incredible human we lost. As the stories were told, I remembered his goofy smile across the band rehearsal room and our many conversations throughout those four years together. It hurt to remember, to realize there would be no new memories, but remembering also brought its own cathartic happiness. Nick had improved so many lives and brought together a community of people ready to help each other heal and remember our joy at having known him.

After dinner, I said goodbye to my counterpart and helped clear the tables. People bade me good night and then continued to chat and laugh long after I had retreated into my house. I’ve come to realize that the 100 day ceremony is important to the Buddhist tradition, but I think it is just as important to the healing process of a family. Mourning is not a public affair here, but community is, and leaning on that community for help is not only accepted, but encouraged. Like my friends back home, this community came together from all over the country to help their friends and family reflect on how positive of a presence they had been blessed with, if only for a short time. And holding onto those memories can be bittersweet, the absence will always be noticed. But telling stories and remembering brings a special blend of laughter and tears and, eventually, happiness and healing.

Read Kayla’s previous articles and contributions.

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