Today, in Bangkok, the cerimonial cremation of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) took place, 375 days after the death of the world’s longest-serving head of state (at the time of his death), the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history and the longest-serving monarch having reigned only as an adult, serving for 70 years, 126 days. On 13 October 2016, President Enrico Letta, on behalf of the Italy-ASEAN Association, voiced his sympathy to the royal family and the Thai people.
Featuring a mixture of Buddhist and animist beliefs, as well as Hindu symbolism, royal Thai funerals include the initial rites that take place after death, a lengthy period of lying-in-state, during which Buddhist ceremonies take place, and a final cremation ceremony. For the highest-ranking royalty, the cremation ceremonies are grand public spectacles, featuring the pageantry of large funeral processions and ornate purpose-built funeral pyres or temporary crematoria known as merumat. The practices date to at least the 17th century, during the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. Today, the cremation ceremonies are held in the historic centre of Bangkok.
The main components of a royal funeral do not differ much from regular Thai funerals. A bathing ceremony is held shortly after death, followed by the rituals of dressing the body and placing it within the kot, a funerary urn used in place of a coffin. The kot is then placed on display and chants by Buddhist monks and the playing of ceremonial music are held for an extended period, which today has come to signify lying-in-state in the Western sense. Those rituals held for the highest-ranking royalty feature temporary crematoria known as merumat, which are purpose-built in the royal field next to the palace, where the body is brought in an elaborate procession.
Royal cremation ceremonies have been documented since the Ayutthaya period. They were previously very elaborate and grand, but have been much simplified since 1911. Following the abolishment of absolute monarchy in 1932 royal funerals became a rare occurrence. The one of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), held on 26 October 2017, is the seventh since then.
Initial rituals and lying-in-state
The bathing ceremony takes place shortly after death. Today, it is held in the Throne Hall in the Grand Palace, and is attended by members of the Royal Family and senior government officials. This takes place as a ceremonial pouring of water by the attendees. After the bathing ceremony, the hair is ritually combed, and, for high-ranking royals, a gold death mask is placed.
Next is the sukam sop ritual, i.e. the tying, wrapping and placing of the body in the kot. The body is first dressed in white, with the appropriate accessories. It is then ritually tied with undyed string, and wrapped in a white shroud. The body is finally placed in a foetal position in the kot.
The kot, meaning “container”, is a large funerary urn, used to contain the body of the deceased in place of a coffin. It is used for royalty, as well as high-ranking members of the nobility. Today it may also be granted to high-ranking government officials. It consists of two layers: an outer shell, usually ornately decorated, with two opening halves and a pointed lid; and an inner cylindrical container. A tube runs down from an opening at the base of the kot, connecting it to a hidden jar which serves to collect fluids, as the body was mostly allowed to decompose within the kot in the days before embalming. Undesirable odours, have to be masked by burning fragrant incenses.
The kot, containing the body, is enshrined in the throne hall for a period of time (usually at least 100 days). In modern times, this has become analogous to lying-in-state, although the practice predates Western contact and did not originally serve to allow the public to pay their respects. During this time, daily Buddhist rites are held, with chanting by monks, and ceremonial music. Further Buddhist ceremonies are held to mark the 7th, 15th, 50th and 100th days since the death.
Historically, the kingdom’s subjects had to shave their heads and dress in white to mourn the death of the king. This practice has also been abandoned and the practice of wearing black for mourning was also a Western import. Today, mourning mostly follows Western protocols. The government announces a mourning period to be observed by government officials, and national flags are flown at half-mast. Mourning is again observed during the cremation period.
Preparation for cremation
As the royal funerary services take place, preparations are made and a temporary royal crematorium, a ‘merumat’, is erected. The construction of merumat date to the Ayutthaya period, as Hindu beliefs were absorbed from the Khmer Empire. Following Khmer custom, the king was believed to be semi-divine, and the merumat symbolizes Mount Meru, the centre of the universe atop which lies the home of the gods, to which the king would return after death.
The earliest merumat was probably erected during the reign of King Prasat Thong (1629–1656), and modelled after Angkor Wat. Ayutthaya-period merumat were gigantic structures. Despite the usual translation of merumat as “funeral pyre”, it was actually a mainly decorative structure, within which the much smaller actual pyre was housed. The construction of the merumat often took months. This, along with the fact that the cremation had to take place in the dry season, partly contributed to the practice of waiting lengthy periods before cremation. The practice of building very large merumat was last seen in the funeral of King Mongkut (Rama IV, died 1868). His successor, King Chulalongkorn, expressed his distaste of the waste of labour and money, and ordered that a simple structure be built for his cremation instead. Since then, royal funerals have employed such simplified designs for the merumat. Following cremation, the merumat is disassembled and the components and materials are usually donated to Buddhist temples or to charity.
As the merumat is being built, restoration and maintenance work is also done to prepare the royal funeral chariots for the cremation ceremony procession. A few days prior to the cremation ceremony, officials will remove the body from the kot in order to re-wrap the body in a new shroud. In the past, the partially-decomposed flesh would also be removed and stripped from the bones, in order to be cremated separately, but embalming has rendered this process unnecessary. The kot will be carried to the merumat on the day of the cremation ceremony.
The royal cremation ceremonies usually lasted fourteen days and nights, and included processions of relics of the Buddha, fireworks, and days of festivities. Today, it usually lasts about five days, and mainly consists of funeral processions bringing the royal body to the merumat, the cremation, and processions returning the cremated remains and ashes to the palace. Final Buddhist rites are held in the evening before the cremation ceremony. The following morning, the kot carrying the royal remains is carried to the merumat via a series of funeral processions. The kot circulates the merumat three times in a counter-clockwise fashion, before the kot is brought into the merumat.
As the kot is brought onto the pyre within the merumat, the outer shell is removed and replaced with a shell of carved sandalwood. During the first cremation, which is a mock ceremonial burning, the king lights the cremation fire and lays the first artificial flowers made of sandalwood. The ritual is repeated later in the night, when the actual cremation takes place.
The day after the cremation, a ceremony takes place and the cremated remains and ashes are placed in smaller urns. They are then transported back to the Grand Palace in a procession. The next day the remains and the royal ashes will be carried to the temple where they will be interred in the Royal Cemetery.