Published in Bangkok Post, Thailand
ON the table lay silver daggers, ornamental knives and cleavers. A man dressed all in white stood nearby and explained their purpose. ‘These are for stripping flesh from the bones of the corpses,” he said casually, and demonstrated by slowly drawing a thumbnail down his arm.
This is the home of the Sawang Boriboon Foundation. Based in Naklua, near Pattaya in Chon Buri, it’s a group of largely Chinese residents who do charitable work, help the local community, and occasionally dig up the dead. The group holds a seemingly macabre Buddhist ceremony every decade or so to exhume the bodies of hundreds of people who died with no relatives. The purpose is to lay the souls at rest, to allow volunteers to make merit and also to make room for more bodies. But rather than being a solemn affair, the participants chant, clap and embrace the ceremony.
The day starts at 7am with a vegetarian breakfast. The volunteers, dressed in white and wearing an orange cloth for protection against any malevolent spirits, then head to Wat Pong, a temple with a cemetery to the rear.
A shrine is put up decked in garlands and sacred symbols, and two of the foundation’s leaders kneel before it. Such a ceremony demands tradition and ritual, and to locate the bodies two pieces of willow are tied together into a Y-shape, much akin to a water diviner. The leaders take this ‘gee’ and wait until it twitches violently and guides everyone to the bodies. Also on hand is a ‘tong huang’ – a bamboo stick – which is held aloft and helps direct any wayward spirits towards the temple.
The ‘gee’ hovers over a spot and the digging begins. Soil is sieved and whatever remains is handed to dozens of waiting volunteers. Bones, ashes and dust are laid out on white cloth and helpers sift through it, cleaning the remains with toothbrushes. At this temple the remains are indistinct as the bodies have already been cremated. But at our next stop things are very distinct.
Inside a Chinese cemetery replete with enormous, glittering tombs there is a small, modest, corner for those who died with no family. Jaw bones, thigh bones, and teeth are laid out on cloth and teams of volunteers try and piece the human jigsaws together. I walk over to one section and am told to sit. Surgical gloves are placed on my hands and I’m given a knife. A piece of bone, it could have a child’s pelvis, I’m not sure, is handed to me and my task becomes apparent. I have to strip the flesh from the dead. I do my best but it’s a gruesome task, especially with the flies and stench. Nevertheless my bone is soon stripped down and the pieces of flesh flake off to the floor.
Once a team has completed a skeleton a cheer goes up, and the bones – now referred to as gold – are taken away by helpers who sing and chant. Twenty baht notes are placed in the mouth, talcum powder is sprinkled over the bones, and a lit cigarette is placed in between the teeth of one skull.
The bones are taken to a special storage room at the foundation’s headquarters, where they will be stored until a mass cremation ceremony is held. All remains must be separated between male and female, and to do this two special sticks are used. They are thrown into the air and whichever way they fall determines the sex of the skeleton.
Those who do the digging and cleaning are all volunteers and the feeling of unity is palpable. The people come in their hundreds to help, knowing they are doing what they can to assist those who died alone. The first of these groups started in Sriracha, while the group in Naklua, near Pattaya, began 60 years ago. At first it was a small group of Chinese people who just wanted to help their community. As the number of Chinese immigrant workers grew, so did the group. If a worker died and had no family, the Sawang Boriboon Foundation would handle the funeral arrangements.
Prasit Thongtipcharoen, coordinator, said: “Many years ago there was a factory which made matches. Many of the workers had to go out into the forest to collect wood. When they came back many caught a disease from being in the forest and died. The factory did not know what to do with the bodies – the people had no family here – so they contacted the foundation to help collect the bodies and conduct funerals.”
After helping with this burial, the foundation became more involved with other funerals. The first mass exhumation was carried out 60 years ago, and this is the first one for 13 years. Today the group also attends fatal road accidents and often looks after funeral arrangements for victims. It takes around four months to prepare for the 49-day exhumation ceremony. A day is chosen for the event and monks pray and chant regularly beforehand. The dig goes on for three weeks and each day the bones are placed in baskets and taken to the temple. The remains of around 800 people are exhumed, separated between men and women, and taken to the storage room, where monks pray every night.
Once the dig is complete, the bones are cleaned and prepared for a mass cremation. Two 10-feet tall funeral pyres are built, each decorated with ornate Chinese murals. The bones are then placed inside while the skulls are gathered in a pyramid formation on top. The exhumation ceremony is one of the more extreme rituals in Thailand but also one of the most fascinating. A task that to many may be gruesome is actually one carried out more for benevolent reasons.