Thai people walk with their dead. They are not forgotten and left to rot in pretty parks with a carved stone placed above their head. The dead are apart of everyday life. There are rooms set aside for them. Their portraits are placed on selves and before them are placed incense burners. Food and drink will be placed before these pictures as the dead are included in family dinners. They are asked to protect the house while everyone is way. To look after the young ones playing around the house. They are brought home on the day of their death, for even the dead have a home in Thailand.
I have heard many stories about how the Thai treat the dead, even the dead that they are not related to. One story that touched me came from the book Tone Deaf in Bangkok by Janet Brown. She talked about a young boy who had died near a lake. The local people left a mannequin there to represent that boy. They clothed it and gave it toys, like soccer balls, so the young child would have things to comfort him. They wanted this child’s ghost to be happy and eventually move on.
There are all sorts of ways to accommodate the dead, like Thai spirit houses. These are little houses, like doll houses, that are made after the style of traditional Thai houses. They come in all shapes and colors and materials. Many will have furniture and even votive figures. These houses are made to appease spirits that might cause trouble for the home or business that built them. It is believed that if you take care of the house and it’s spirit resident they will look after you, your loved ones and home. I have been told by my wife that before construction takes place, or when you buy a building, you bring in a monk who will go over the ground and tell you what spirits linger there. He will be able to instruct you as to what kind of spirit house you need, what it should be made of and what the spirit will require.
My favorite stories come from my wife. Like all Thai people she reveres the dead, but is also quite terrified of them. You never know what they’ll do, she has told me. Indeed, you don’t, as Sophee, one of my wife’s aunts frequently experiences. My father-in-law is the only child, therefore it is his duty to see to Grandma and Grandpa’s comfort. When he or my mother-in-law are unable to do this Sophee always goes to check on them in the room set aside for them. She will bring food offerings and light incense sticks when my in-laws are away. She claims that Grandma has fun at her expense. When Sophee lights the sticks, Grandma will blow it out, quite a few times before letting Sophee go. Grandma also shuts and locks the door to the room as well. This is not dangerous, Sophee can just unlock it and leave, but she always does it in a hurry, asking Grandma to stop playing with her.
There was a lot of hurrying during my wife’s childhood. Their home sits within a city block that the family owns. So, there is a corridor of sorts from where you park the car and the front door to the house. When coming home at night my wife would wait until someone in the house would unlock the door and then she would run down the corridor straight into the house. This was always a concern for when her Grandfather was alive as well as after he died. Grandpa, while alive, would always walk around the house locking all the doors and checking windows when he was ready for bed, whether or not everyone else was home for the night. In death he continued to protect the family by locking all the doors and windows, regardless of the fact that my wife was still out. Sometimes she would run down the corridor to find Grandpa had already locked the door and she would bang on it in a slight panic until someone let her in.
My wife firmly believes that her Grandparents are still there in that home, still protecting the family. She has proof, she told me that the family brought them home. When Grandma died, friends said that her ghost was walking around the temple as people paid their respect. This is natural, that is where her body was. It was the same with Grandpa, until the family asked them to come home.
When Grandpa died he was in a hospital and the family rushed over when a call come through that he was starting to die. They got there too late. At the side of his death bed they asked him to come home with them. They walked with Grandpa’s spirit out of that room into the elevator and into parking lot and opened the car door for him. They drove home and opened the car door there to let him out. They held open the front door and welcomed him home, just as if he was alive. Then my wife and her sister fought over who would be the first to run down the corridor to safety. They did this for Grandma as well, so yes, that is where they are because that is where the family took them.
A while after their deaths my wife would ask her parents from time to time if either of them had seen Grandma and Grandpa around the house. Dad would hum a noncommittal noise and shake his head. Mom would do much the same and shrug her shoulders. Neither would really answer the question. My wife kept asking and getting the same response. Until one day she asked, ‘How come you never see them, but I see them all the time? They always come to me.’ She told them that on many occasions, while sleeping or just about to fall asleep, she would see her Grandparents by the end of her bed looking down at her. They were not threaten and didn’t stay long.
Mom laughed and said, ‘You were always their favorite. That is why they always come to see you.’
So, I want to live in Thailand because of their ghosts, even if I don’t believe. There is something about remembering the dead in such a way. Thai people are not clinging to the past, so their dead are not a burden that needs to be let go of. Their dead are reminders of their impermanence, for they will eventually join their ranks. They dead are reminders of where they came from, allowing them to remember their family line. It is also a comfort in knowing that you won’t be forgotten. Someone will light incense for you and remember to share the holiday feast with you.
However, just because I don’t believe doesn’t mean I am excused from the reality of Thai life. My wife has told me that when we return I have to introduce myself to my Grandparents-in-law. If I want them to like me and not mess with me I have to tell them who I am, and why I am an ok person to have in their house. I have to prove that I am family, I have to pay my respects. As she was telling me this she stopped and said, “Remember, they don’t speak english, only Thai, so good luck.” She laughed. “Maybe I can translate for you.”
“So, now that you are older you won’t run down that corridor?” I asked.
“Oh no, I still run!”
“But, your Grandparents are there.” I laughed.
“I know they won’t hurt me, but I will still run. That house is creepy, so many dark corners. Just you wait, you run like me”
“So, what happens if they don’t like me?”
“Well, I know they won’t hurt me, and I know they will love the girls, but you….well, just run faster!” and my wife laughed at me.
One evening my wife had called home to talk with her parents. After she had hung up with Mom and Dad she said that they were planning to sell the land that the family house was on. They have other property outside Bangkok and since flooding has gotten worse in Bangkhen, the district of Bangkok they live, they don’t want to deal with repairing the damage every year. I asked my wife what will happen to Grandma and Grandpa when Mom and Dad sell that land. She answered, “They come with us! Why would we leave them there?” as if I was crazy for asking, perhaps I was.