Dealing with death in Thailand

Before I write about what happened I thought I’d give a quick background on some things that have happened in my family that quite likely had a big impact on how I dealt with things over there. My family and I have unfortunately experienced a lot of tragedy and heartache, including 2 suicides. To even begin to explain the pain of hearing and dealing with news like that is difficult but to go through it twice, it seems unfair, it feels for a lot of us that perhaps in a past life we were really bad people to have to go through so much pain now. But who knows! Being an Irish Catholic our funerals usually always have a wake at home with an open coffin the night before the funeral. So I’ve seen a good few dead bodies both young and old. It’s never easy of course but then as you can imagine the process of preparing a body for a funeral here at home is not the same as in a foreign country. When the suicides happened it broke my family, there’s no other way to explain it really things would never be the same, but in my mind no matter how I felt, someone else in my family was worse and I needed / wanted to be strong and support them where I can. Its how i dealt with my grieve i think, worrying about other people. My family has always called me strong and said that i didn’t cry much, but i did, alone at night i cried and cried but i was strong when i needed to be. I believe that this in addition to me knowing and experiencing  Thai culture helped so much in dealing with my uncle’s death and the things i saw and did during the funeral, I would be really interested in people’s views on my experience as i will admit i handled it brilliantly but it wasnt a normal thing to go through and the way death is dealt with is just so different to how it is in the west.

I spent the last 2 Christmases in Thailand and it was last Christmas 2015 that was the last time I saw my uncle! I travelled to Koh Chang to spend Christmas with him, his partner Jupp and their young baby Henry. It was lovely spending time with them but I found Christmas away from home difficult and Christmas Eve night I walked down and sat on the beach and cried, I felt so alone, even though i was with some family, it was then I decided that it was time to leave Thailand. I was ridiculously excited about this christmas and I won’t even mention the amount of money I spent on gifts but I was just so excited to be celebrating Christmas at home! I woke Christmas morning around 9am and looked at Facebook on my phone. It was there I saw a status written by my uncle’s friend that he was dead and for family to ring this number. I felt physically sick and started seeing R.I.P comments on the status along with a comment from one of my cousins asking what the hell was going on. I went to my mum to tell her that her brother was possibly dead (her 3rd sibling to die suddenly). I was shaking and trying to top up my phone to ring Thailand and I couldn’t for at least 10 minutes but it felt like an hour. When I finally got through to Cliff’s friend Andy he told me how he had suffered a heart attack at home and pronounced dead at the hospital. He had swallowed and choked on his tongue as well. WTF!! I spoke to Jupp but through her tears all she could say was “he wants to stay here with Henry he wants to be close to Henry”. In her mind already she was panicked about what my family would do but there were no question at all, we would of course respect his and her wishes. I’m also the only member of my family to see Cliff in the last 8 years, he was happy and settled there but he had not been feeling well and had complained of chest pains the night before, he didn’t want to go to the hospital as they had arranged a Christmas lunch with friends.

So the first ‘Thai’ thing to happen was my dead uncle “sad face” reacted to the status that said he was dead! I of course knew straight away this was Jupp but there was confusion amongst some of my family. I spoke to a couple of my cousins (his children ) and we were all obviously in shock and tears about it all. I straight away felt that I needed to go to Thailand , that I should go!! I’ve lived there, I know the customs and I’m the only member of my family to see or spend time with Cliff and his family there in the last 8 years. It had to be me that went and my family all agreed. My cousin (his daughter Molly) would also come with me. His son went as well separately and it’s not something I will talk about in this but there was a lot of stress and anxiety brought on by some of my family which really made everything so much worse but I won’t be going into that here.

So flights were booked and myself and Molly began our journey out there. A family member needed to sign paperwork to release his body to hold a funeral. Molly is only 20 and had never been to Thailand or anywhere in Asia so we talked a lot throughout our journey and I filled her in on lots of things to do with Thai culture etc. Our journey there wasnt bad but we had a 9 1/2 hour stop over in Kuwait!! And no sleep for me of course! There was also a home alone moment of running through Heathrow (in the wrong direction first) as we were late due to traffic. As much as i know alot about Thai culture i had never experienced a funeral there but i had heard things and i read a post by the oracle that is Richard Barrow on funerals in Thailand. I was glad i read it as it prepared me for everything. When bodies are cremated in Thailand the bones and teeth are left and families keep some for luck! That being said i actually looked it up here and bones are left over here aswell but the crematorium use a special machine to separately turn them into ash! The families go themselves to collect the ashes the morning after the funeral, it’s all quite traumatic i feel for a grieving family but it’s what they do.

My family had been told my uncle didn’t look good there was far too much embalming fluid in him and he just looked awful but i still needed to see him, for closure and for it to be real. But my cousin decided she didnt want to which was the right thing for her to do, she should just have the memory she has of him alive. So when we arrived in Bangkok we were collected and brought to Pattaya by my uncles friend Andy (who has just been amazing throughout this all). Cliff had only recently moved to Pattaya from Koh Chang and i was so thankful that we didnt have to travel further to Koh Chang (another 6 or so hours). It was late when we arrived but we were updated on what was happening and stayed the night at Andy’s condo. One thing i noticed straight away was how they spoke about the process. I had never experienced a cremation ceremony before as all my family were buried but im pretty sure here the funeral directors don’t say things like “when cliff burns, when he goes in oven” and references to fire!

The next morning we went to my uncle’s house to see Jupp and Henry god she held me and cried so much when she saw me it broke my heart! And then of course she was meeting a couple of Cliffs children she had never met before. We stayed a while, played with Henry who is so hyper and of course doesn’t have a clue whats going on! We needed to make sure we had the correct documents to bring ashes home and we were finding it difficult getting answers and of course its New Years! one of the biggest holidays in Thailand. So later that evening we were to go to the temple for the wake. There was a bit of confusion  about getting to the Temple (thai-style) but Andy came on his motorbike and brought a motorbike taxi and we went up to the Temple. There were 4 monks there who were just finishing chanting and there was a hight table  with a giant rectangular box on top, beautifully decorated everywhere as is everything in Thailand, which was actually a refrigerator and Cliffs coffin was inside. I had mentioned to Molly that there would probably be a photo shopped framed picture of Cliff by the coffin. It was rare to see a picture of Cliff with a top on and of course you couldn’t have that in a temple! And lo and behold there was a big ole picture in a big gold frame of Cliff’s  head photoshopped on someone elses body wearing a suit!! I laughed a lot! Also to make things weirder the whole thing was decorated with Christmas lights!! Because he died on Christmas! We lit incense and said a little pray. Jupp had left an offering for Cliff a shepherds pie, a beer and a cigarette, i found this so touching, it was left by the coffin. We had to go and knock on the box 3 times to “wake him up” and tell him that we were there. It was all over within an hour, it was weird to think he was in that box. We went back to our hotel after that and had a wander to big c to buy a charger. Family had to be at the temple for 10am in the morning to give merit to the monks.

The next morning we got ready (both of us bringing the same black top from H&M to wear) and got motorbike taxis to the temple. Molly found it so funny getting on a motorbike to go to her dads funeral and i kept forgetting how weird all these normal things to me were to her. We were there early and some of Jupps family were there cleaning up, like could you imagine hoovering up the crematorium  or sweeping the floor of a church before a funeral of your own relative?! Thai’s are very big on helping each other and taking care and it’s really important at a time like this when the family have to do so much! It’s not just picking this and choosing that, its cleaning, cooking, giving merit etc support is so crucial there and thankfully its in abundance. It was lovely to see that Jupp family truly cared and grieved for my uncle it wasnt just a case (that you see so often) of oh the farang died! It was my brother has died, ive lost one of my family. 13 monks came in and sat down and started chanting. I have always loved the sound of monks chanting but i suddenly became so overwhelmed with emotion. I realised then that i wouldn’t be able to be as strong as i thought i could be! When the monks finished their chants they were given offerings of food to eat. After it was all cleared up they began chanting again using a ribbon that led to the coffin which i believe is meant to signify the deceased receiving merit. Myself and Molly along with Jupp and her family gave merit to the monks, with monk clothing, a purple Thai orchid flower and an envelope with 100 baht. Afterwards we went back and sat down and the monks got up to leave, some went over to look at Cliffs picture and one came over to us and gave us a smelly thing, like to clear your nostrils (Thai’s love a eucalyptus liquid balm thing).

In the next 3 hours we just sat and waited, some of Cliffs friends and their families began to show up which was so lovely to see. There was a bit of upset from some of his friends as they couldn’t leave their businesses on New Years Eve in Koh Chang and wanted the funeral to be another day but it was Jupps wishes and ours to have it as soon as possible. But regardless around 10 of his friends showed up and Jupp was so happy to see them. At around 3pm we were asked to turn are chairs around to face the outside where the crematorium was. They brought around a decorated trailer where the coffin would be placed, as they opened the fridge box where he was I started to feel sick and became overwhelmed! My cousin started crying as did Jupp and myself. The Thai’s asked for help lifting the coffin down and onto the trailer I couldn’t believe how heavy it was! It was beautiful of course, white with gold on it. My uncle wasn’t a big man and there were about 8 men lifting the coffin. All I could think was what if Cliffs friends weren’t here? How would they lift the coffin!

The coffin was placed on the trailer and my other cousin stood at the front holding his photo whilst we all stood behind it, the monks held a white string attached to the coffin and we all proceeded to walk around the crematorium 3 times (everything is in 3’s in Thailand) After cliffs friends had to carry the coffin up the steps to the crematorium and place the coffin on a kind of rolling table (so it can be pushed into the oven) His photo was placed up beside the coffin and we had to carry up things I can’t even remember it may have been some kind of cloth to be placed in coffin. Everyone was given a white flower that was made from shaved wood and everyone then had to go up and place the flower on a tray in front of the coffin (they would all be put inside the coffin), this was the time to say goodbye and a little pray, and as you walked down the other stairs there was a small gift another smelly thing to take as a thank you for being there. Afterwards lots of colourful ribbon bows were thrown out (quite like the ones you stick on a gift) they were to bring good luck so people starting gathering as many as they could.

Jupp then told me to go back up as it was time to say our last goodbye, it was just me and my other cousin and the Thai men dealing with the cremation. I walked up to the coffin and the lid was off and i sobbed. He didn’t look great (in comparison to other dead people ive seen). At home makeup and things are used to make the person look like themselves. Well not in Thailand he was dressed in white linen and he was so swollen and grey, you could barely recognise him! he had his hands clasped holding a purple orchid and ribbon was tied around his hands. The smell of the embalming fluid was really strong. The coffin was full of flowers and also the white flowers that everyone was given. I cried and went up towards his head and one of the Thai’s was saying ” no crying, no crying”.  To them they see this as freeing his spirit, it’s a good thing. They sprinkled holy water over his body using some kind of leaf and cracked a coconut and poured the water over his face. Then they took (what looked like a large letter opener) to tear the ribbon that was binding his hands together. My cousin took this as they were about to poke holes in Cliff and staring crying “OH MY FUCKING GOD” and of course i started cracking up laughing! Like as if that was going to happen poke holes in someone before they are cremated!! I told him to calm down it was just to cut the ribbon. Anyway they told us to stand either side at the bottom of the coffin and together with the Thai’s we pushed his coffin into the oven. They kept saying it was good luck to push the coffin in………as the coffin went in Cliff’s hands came apart  and were just hanging drooped and for me that was probably the worst part it kind of looked like a zombie pose, then i watched them set him on fire. As horrifying as all this was for me it felt quite special to be apart of this and to experience even up until the last moments their beautiful traditions that not many get to see. I walked down the steps overwhelmed with emotion to my cousin and Jupp, all of us inconsolable. Then i was told to look up at the chimney……look up to watch for smoke which was also ‘good luck’. It seemed so awful to look up to see smoke! my uncles was burning in there and i was looking to see smoke from his body,  but i couldn’t stop staring up, i didnt see any. Moments later an ambulance arrived with another dead body which was placed on the table beside where Cliffs coffin was held. The body of an elderly Thai man was just left on the table wrapped in linen cloth except his face, i told my cousin to not turn around and we walked towards the cars to leave, just another day in Thailand. Afterwards we went to a local Irish bar to have a drink in Cliffs memory and i finally felt at peace. The unbelievable  stress that we endured the last week was over and i genuinely felt that i would sleep that night, that it was ok and Cliff had been put to rest. And i did. Jupp had thankfully paid someone to take care of Henry for the funeral as it was no place for him and his quite a handful! so we went back to Jupp for a bit to see him after we left the pub! Jupp gave us a ring that belonged to Cliff, it was actually of great sentiment to some of our family as this ring was one that himself and his first wife got made after the death of their first child Natasha from cot death. We were not sure if we could get the ring so we were delighted to be able to bring it back for my family. Jupp also offered me Cliffs gold tooth! said i could give it to one of his other kids, i laughed ………….and declined! i think they will be ok, that’s not something we would want to keep, but again the Thai’s keep these things as luck.

We looked at flights that evening and contacted airlines to check their policy on human ashes being carried on flights and it was more difficult than we though getting a straight answer. Everything online said we needed a death certificate a cremation certificate and copy of his passport. One problem there was no cremation  certificate, and the death certificate was in Thai. It was New Years Eve and all places were closed for the holidays. The airline we flew with just said it needed to be secure in our checked luggage and no mention of certificates. The day after the funeral was our first day of doing nothing so we checked into a new hotel for one night as our other one was booked out and spent the afternoon by the pool. Jupp brought Henry over and we had lunch. She then started to tell me that the monks saw a big problem in the ashes. Her mother went to the temple that morning as the family go to collect the ashes. She then showed me photos of his charred bones, im sitting there eating my chicken and cashew nuts looked at pictures of my uncles cremated remains. His hip bone to be precise! I laugh writing this but it’s horrifying but it didn’t upset me i was just like ‘fuckin hell’ this is my uncle 😟. He was in a really bad scooter accident a few years ago, it was bad and he had steel pins put in his hips and was in a wheelchair for a while. It cost ALOT of money aswell! Basically she said the pins were wrong it was really bad, the monks had never seen it before, but the hospital had fucked up big time. I just asked her to not show the photos to my cousins.

The next day (the day we were leaving) Jupp came in a pickup truck to collect us and our bags and we went to the beach where we were to meet Andy. Cliffs friend Neil was there and we were all to go out on Andy’s boat to scatter his ashes. Jupp had the ashes, flowers and the big framed photo of Cliff. She also had a plastic bag, a plastic bag holding part of Cliffs hipbone!! So casual as you like Jupp said Kelly look look this is really bad and I don’t know what im about to see but yep there it was part of my uncles hip bone with a metal plate and screws sticking out! now im no doctor and i have no medical knowledge but fuck me i know a massive fuck up when i see it. The screws looked like dry wall screws not ones you would see being used in surgery, to be honest im not surprised its Thailand but they did not look like surgical ones at all and well could have caused any amount of problems for my uncle. Again i said to not show my cousin! like this is weird, looking at bones of your deceased loved one its weird!

We were meeting at a beautiful part of the beach but Andy was nowhere to be seen and we couldn’t get hold of him. When I finally got him on the phone he had of course had a disaster! when he brought his boat to the dock the Thai’s working there helping to put it in the sea well they didn’t do a good job, the boat got flooded and the engine wouldn’t start ….disaster! So when he finally got to the beach he was a bit stressed and upset as of course he just wanted to do this one thing for his friend and he was trying to figure out how or where we could get a boat for like 30 minutes. i just casually suggested we get on jet ski’s! it would be hilarious and Cliff loved jetski’s. So that was the plan! Andy hired 3 jetski’s……..3 dodgy looking jetski’s and so we headed off, oh and im carrying this giant framed phone of Cliff! Myself and Molly went on one with her driving and Neil on one and Andy, Jupp and Henry on another. Molly and i were wearing life jackets but no one else was. We got out to sea and we all joined hands to pull the ski’s in close together. Andy said a few words and we had a giggle at our situation and Jupp spilt the ashes (which were in a white linen bundle with tiny little flowers added) into the sea, and we each took an orange phuang malai and put it into the sea, it was lovely a real beautiful moment. Andy and Neil returned back to shore and myself and Molly just sat there for a moment watching the flowers float out to sea, it really was beautiful and i feel a great send off for Cliff.

Then she tried to start the jet ski… it wouldn’t start, then she started to panic, so i was like calm down calm down they will come back out to us when they see us just sitting here! we were facing the ocean so we both turned slightly to wave for them to come back………………and the jet ski capsized!! now bear in mind we were wearing regular clothes as we thought we were going in a boat and we had our bags across our shoulders under our life jackets! we both went into the water and im still holding this massive picture of Cliff!! Molly started panicking and at this point i started roaring laughing, WTF! of COURSE this happened!!! Then Molly was like ‘oh my god we have probably swallowed dads ashes’ which made us laugh even more! im STILL holding this picture, Cliffs photo shopped head held out of the water! the frame was all broken off. i had one broken piece in one hand and the photo and the glass front in the other! I have no idea why i felt it was so important to hold onto this picture as it wasnt but i held on to it and my bag with my phone my money everything was underwater! The Thai’s came back on the other jetski’s and pulled us up and brought us to shore. Well that went well didn’t it!! we laughed a lot as Cliff would have been roaring wherever he was! if someone had of filmed it i bet it would be so funny to watch! so we walk back down to where we were sitting, soaked through and i then told Molly that ive actually got a huge fear of the ocean!!! But her panicking made me calmer and start to laugh but as i thought about it after i was like Oh my god!! im really scared of the ocean, i rarely go in it and if i do only up to my waist sometimes!

So everything in my bag was wet, money, 2 phones destroyed it really sucked but had to see the funny side of the situation! Molly held her bag over her head so saved her phone but me the idiot holding Cliffs picture up in the air…not so lucky! so after all that drama it was time to leave! we sad an emotional goodbye to Jupp and Henry and Andy gave us a lift to the bus station, but wait there’s still a bit of Thai style drama left! the ashes yes the ashes, Jupp gave them to us in a linen cloth bundle in a plastic bag. So Andy gave us tape and I went into family mart and bought some envelopes and Cliff well Cliff got tapped up in 2 plastic bags, then into a brown envelope then into the plastic wallet holding the envelope and tape, tape, and more tape!! not how you imagine bringing a dead relative home! We packed him into Molly’s suitcase and wished him luck and that we would get the case when we arrived home. 3 flights later waiting for the bags at baggage claim Mollys bag didn’t come out, i kept saying that we has done nothing wrong, it was ashes there was nothing illegal we had a death certificate but well that worry there in the pit of our stomachs and when Mollys bag didnt come out i literally thought COME THE FUCK ON!! have we not been through enough seriously!! and just as we were about to walk away……the bag came through! God my heart! We hugged each other , grabbed our bags and got the feck out of there!

And there you have it! 2 blondes ,  6 days, 5 planes, 2 hotels, a funeral, motorbikes, 3 jet ski’s, ashes in an envelope and one hell of an experience that no one will ever understand only ourselves! but ive tried to put what i can into words as as awful as the experience was, it was special and something i never want to forget and above all i got to bond with a cousin who through no fault only living our lives we didn’t know each other that well! this has reconnected us and made us closer and we share an extraordinary experience that only we can ever understand. x

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