Tim Connors, 130 TESS
It was on the second day of the funeral that my Paw-aw (director) asked me to bpuat for Paw Gam Nan. I would bpuat naa fai: meaning I’d become a monk for the cremation ceremony, and then, relinquish the robes after.
Paw Gam Nan Kankam was technically my host grandfather. Everyone in the community knew him as a wealthy businessman who had retired as Gam Nan, but been so revered he was still honored with the title. He was charitable to schools, administration offices, and clinics in the area. At community events he mingled, spreading jokes or snapping selfies. I wish I could say I knew him better that that, but I can’t.
I stayed at one of his orange farms when I first arrived at site. Any time we talked he was friendly. He talked about vacationing to Hawaii and seeing the volcanos or about his hotels on a trade route from Chiang Rai to Laos, but we didn’t talk often. He and the rest of the family were busy traveling to meetings, supervising farms, balancing budgets, or checking shipments. After a month and a half, I moved out, and while I still go back to teach at the farm, I’m closer with the kids I teach than Paw Gam Nan’s family.
So why was I being asked to bpuat? To do something that normally only family members do?
Did the family want me there as a sideshow? The monk farang (foreigner)? Or worse, were they trying to give me a souvenir no farang could top? Something to show off to my friends and family back home?
Or maybe, they appreciated me and wanted to include me, and another monk making merit for Paw Gam Nan would give him greater luck and happiness in his next life. If that was the case, why not say yes? So I did.
* * *
The day before the cremation ceremony Paw Gam Nan’s family shaved my head and eyebrows.
“Now, we have to do the rest,” said the barber, pointing at my chest.
The day of the ceremony, Ed, the supervisor at the orange farm and son-in-law of Paw Gam Nan, picked me up. I wore shorts and a T-shirt and carried only a watch, cell phone, and pen in my pocket. Ed’s ten-year-old son and Paw Gam Nan’s grandson, Pet, would also be a monk for the day. He sat in the back.
“Remember, don’t wai (a Thai greeting) anyone,” said Ed, “and smile only a little.”
I nodded, thinking that I usually waied everyone and smiled constantly and that I also shouldn’t have drunk so much coffee before getting into the car.
At the temple, I prayed with eight members of Paw Gam Nan’s family as robes wrapped in plastic were placed on our forearms. After a short ceremony, we went outside.
On the front steps of the temple, we stripped down to our underwear and put our clothing into a cardboard box. Three novice monks helped us put on our robes. By help, I mean they put on our robes. Once the robes were cinched around my body, I decided not to breathe deeply, walk too fast, or make sudden movements. I wanted to avoid stepping on the robe’s hem and ripping off the whole outfit to reveal a hairy pale man in his underwear.
At Paw Gam Nan’s house, where all the mourners had gathered, the temporary monks and I gathered upstairs. During downtime, we readjusted our robes, shuffled between the dining room and the bathroom, or funneled as much food down our throats as possible before noon struck. When the real monks came we sat across from them and chanted with straight backs for so long my spine was fire, and I imagined leaping up and screaming English obscenities.
Pet, the ten-year-old monk, cried when it was time to march in the procession. I thought he was scared because I was scared, but no, he was just hot. Soon after, Ed returned him to the procession with a handheld Doreamon fan blowing air across his tiny bald head.
During the march, we held a rope that pulled Paw Gam Nan’s funeral bier—a structure as large as a parade float with dragons perched on either side. We marched alongside mourners dressed in black who wore straw hats with bands around the top that read “Marlborough.” Our school marching band was at the head, and they moved from a funeral dirge to a standard marching song to “O Man Nan Bpak Dteng Mo.”
When we finally got to the main (crematorium), I could have sworn there were a thousand people waiting. We sat behind the real monks on padded leather chairs. Pet cooled us with his fan until he fell asleep with his head drooping like a thirsty flower.
We listened to the eulogy and watched scores of people accept gifts and offerings from Paw Gam Nan’s family. When everything was finished, a pan piled high with white flowers was laid on a table. Everyone rushed up to take one, wai towards Paw Gam Nan, and place it on an empty tray.
The temporary monks and I stood off to the side, watching. No one interacted with us. When everyone finished and half the crowd had left in pickup trucks and vans, the other half watched three men in gray uniforms roll Paw Gam Nan’s casket away from the funeral bier. They found a metal stick and ripped the wheels and undercarriage off. Then, they took the splintered wood, the casket, and the tray of flowers up the main’s stairs.
We followed and stood by as they pried the lid off the casket. I looked. I couldn’t not look. There lay Paw Gam Nan’s body. I looked away at an arrangement of flowers. I thought I might throw up, but I couldn’t throw up. I was a monk. So I looked back.
Close family members came to see him for the last time. A coconut was cracked open, and the milk splashed over the corpse. The family dipped a branch in clean water and sprinkled it onto the body that I now thought looked nothing like Paw Gam Nan. He wasn’t there. It was like looking at a waterfall without any water.
The men in gray ushered us back down the steps. We waited as they rolled the casket, flowers, and splintered wood into the main’s chamber. Then, they pressed a button to close the door before retreating. We heard sizzling, the explosions of fire crackers, and suddenly the main was decorated with fire. Then, everything fizzled. The men in gray went to investigate before rushing out again as the funeral bier combusted in the background, and everyone saw what they were waiting for: smoke funneling out of the main’s chimney. A strong wind blew the smoke sideways past the sun peeking through a wall of clouds.
I thought maybe the smoke would settle into the soil of an orange farm or a rice field and help food grow. Maybe, it would float all over, billowed around by passing motorcycles and stray dogs. Maybe, it would just keep going higher and higher and never come down. Or maybe, it would get washed away by the rain while Paw Gam Nan, sitting cross legged on a cloud, pointed and laughed at everything he couldn’t take with him.
On the way home, Pet tugged on my sleeve and said, “I can’t wait to take off these robes.”
I nodded in agreement.