Necrological literature: Thailand's 'funeral books'

Necrological literature: Thailand's 'funeral books'

Books about the dead are popular momentos at Thai funerals, but they also offer historical insights and even classic Thai recipes
Funeral books
A magazine rack in a library at Bangkok's Wat Bovornives includes the late Samorn Sawadchevin's funeral memory book wedged below Buddhist magazines and publications for the temple's monks to read.

Necrological literature may sound morbid and vampirish, but Thailand's wealthy elite society and humbler proud people are writing, publishing and reading millions of nostalgic "funeral memory books" for free.

Rising in popularity, these books not only are providing insight into the lives of the dead, they are increasingly becoming important in maintaining valuable cultural traditions.

"These are the books written about the dead people," says 83-year-old Tieng Nantoe during an interview at Bangkok's Wat Bovornives, where he teaches English to Buddhist monks.

"I myself wrote one of these books, when my younger brother died about six or seven years ago. It was only a booklet, so it did not take me many hours to write.  

"He was about 55 years old and died from drinking alcohol, but in the book I did not say why he died. I just wrote that he had been sick. He was a colonel.

The late Prakit Sumonkan's funeral memory book describes him as an expert in traditional Thai medicine and the eldest son of three children.'Nangsu anuson ngansop' (funeral memory book), are offered free to anyone who visits while a corpse awaits cremation in a Buddhist temple's oven. 

The text and photographs are not always grim, mournful or poignant. The publications can also include eulogies or cheerful tales by relatives and friends, plus Buddhist prayers, descriptions of the deceased's favorite recipes and other intriguing data.

"My younger brother also wrote some facts, and I collected that also when we made the book," says Tieng. "My relatives and I were in a hurry to finish the book, so we printed it on our computer, about 500 copies, and gave those to the people who came to the funeral.

"These books about the dead people are written usually by their relatives. It is a good book, because it deals with the work of the dead -- the ideas, the thoughts, the feelings of the dead."

The books are often illustrated with color or black-and-white photographs displaying cherished family portraits, graduation pictures, weddings and, in some cases, meetings with celebrities, monks, government officials or royalty. 

"Occasionally, when we want to know about the biography of someone in the past, we consult a book of the dead. I have more than 10 of them," Tieng  says.

Funeral books a great source for cooking tips

Thai funeral booksThe cover of the late Samorn Sawadchevin's funeral memory book.Thais have been giving away these funeral books at cremations for more than 100 years. With this country's current population topping more than 65 million people, that equates to countless copies of nangsu anuson ngansop.

Royals and other wealthy people may produce opulent obituaries, bound in gold-embossed leather covers, while others opt for simpler, stapled pamphlets.   

Those who cannot afford to pay for such memorials either do not produce them, or make do with inexpensively printed productions that list a few biographical details amid a selection of Buddhist aphorisms.

Mourning relatives and friends are not the only people who read these books.   

Thai and foreign scholars, chefs, artists and others have been quietly examining the volumes' valuable text for historical references, traditional food preparation instructions, etymology, descriptions of travel, medical and herbal cures, quaint tales and gossip, plus other eclectic cultural information.

Some Thai restaurants, such as Bangkok's high-end Nahm eatery, boast that they source their recipes from antique cremation books to meticulously produce authentic, delicious cuisine.

Chefs do not need to belong to an Illuminati-style Dead Recipes Society. They can simply visit libraries, museums, temples and shops to find funeral books, or the homes of people who keep the documents for others to read.

"Southeast Asian collections in Western libraries have made an effort to increase the number of such works in their possession," wrote Grant A. Olson in a 1992 edition of Asian Folklore Studies.

"Recently, largely because of the rising cost of paper, cremation volumes are produced only selectively and are increasingly becoming an activity of the more well-to-do. 

"Videos are becoming as popular in Thailand, as they are in other parts of the world. While they are not yet handed out at funerals, many funerals are being taped and copies are made as mementos," Olson noted.

Funeral book origins

Funeral booksA passage in late Mrs. Samorn Sawadchevin's funeral book says she suffered during World War II when the Japanese bombed her home in Surat Thani, forcing her and her family to flee.Up until the mid-19th century, Thais traditionally gave out small gifts at funerals, but then decided to offer something more personal and long-lasting. 

So when printing presses arrived in 1835, locally produced books became popular, inspiring people to print funeral books.

One of the first cremation books appeared in 1881, when 10,000 copies were created for the double funeral of two women -- King Chulalongkorn's Queen Sunanda Kumariratana and the couple's daughter -- who drowned when their boat overturned in the Chao Phraya River. 

That book included Buddhist chants and verses.

King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V, later became involved in shaping the contents of funeral books after he lamented that most people were merely filling their pages with stilted, confusing information. 

In 1904, the king "proclaimed that these volumes, containing all this deep Buddhist philosophy, were not very enjoyable for most people to read. He requested that people begin to publish fables, Jataka [Buddhist] tales, and fiction," wrote Damrong Rajanubhab, who managed Siam's royal libraries at that time.

More recently, a library was established at Wat Bovornives to preserve any funeral books deposited for archiving. 

Today, Thais sometimes discover their family's cremation books while clearing out old boxes or renovating their home, and delight in learning more about their family tree while being introduced to late ancestors they might not have known about.

Collectors are also buying and selling funeral books about interesting people, or volumes published in an elaborate format, with hard-to-find information.

Some people, however, suspect eager dealers are gate-crashing cremation ceremonies just to get a famous person's funeral book, so they can later sell it.

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

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