choosing a coffin

November 5, 2006

One of the more endearing customs of Lisu hilltribes people (in addition to cultivating opium, which is done a little more discretely these days) is to order their coffins well in advance of their death. Rather as some people might buy a little cottage in the country with their retirement in view.  The wood for the coffins must be the best  available.  At around 60 pounds it represents a considerable expense for people whose only source of income is a once a year bean harvest, most of the proceeds of which are spent on New Year’s celebrations. The wood has to be carefully stored to avoid warping, which could prove an embarassment when it comes to be used. The Lisu also prepare a small collection of little pieces of pure silver – 9 for men, 7 for women, which are places on the person’s tongue just before they die, to wish them a good journey. At the appropriate time, the coffin must be made without any nails or other metal being used or glue. There are other expenses, too- the body has to be dressed in brand new clothes and, inevitably as when any event of signifiance or festival occurs, a pig has to be slaughtered. Pigs in Lisu villages lead charmed lives. Cremation is only used for ‘bad’ deaths and you can get away with a much cheaper coffin, sometimes just a few pieces of flimsy bamboo. Lisu funerals are different from those of most other hilltirbes in that they don’t allow musical instruments. There are funeral songs but recording or taking photographs is taboo. Having bought a couple of the good coffins (for others) I thought I’d  take a stroll round to the corner coffin shop and see what they had in stock. These were the Thai style coffins, very gaudy in white and gold but probably made of MFI plywood. Thai funerals can be quite jolly affairs. The first requirement is the sort of sound system that would not look out of place at a Pink Floyd spectacular in Wembley Stadium. It’s not a long faces and only saying nice things about the departed sort of occasion. In fact no one seems much concerned by the one who’s passed away once they’ve established who it is. There’s no actual riotous merriment but lots of smiling faces. Thais, like anyone else, will be shocked and saddened at an unexpected death but the initial grief soon gives way to a more fatalistic attitude. There’s an ingrained belief, even in the hill tribes who are only Buddhist in name, that there’s a predetermined departure time for all of us and when that comes there’s no point in making a fuss about it. The idea that the deceased is suffering less now than he or she did in real life seems to comfort most Thais. I’m not sure I go along with this- whenever my time comes it will be the wrong time as far as i am concerned and I woudn’t object at all if there were a few long faces for an hour or two. It seems a good idea to me, though,  to have a coffin in reserve- you never know when it might come in handy.. The coffin maker had a big sign up saying ‘Promotion, down from 1250 baht to 950’. Never one to miss a bargain I asked him if he would do a ‘two for one’ deal but he was less than enthusiastic so I decided to put it off for a while. After all, there were more urgent purchases needed, like restocking the fridge and changing the brake pads on my Mighty X pick up, which if I didn’t get round to doing I might be needing that coffin sooner rather than later. On which subject I have been informed by some of the recipients of the dollops of cash I handed out recently that unless I can keep going for another seven years they might be forced to have discussions with the taxman. It’s nice to know that some people are remembering you in their prayers. Except that none of the blighters are Christian so that won’t do any good. Not that I think a God who would go out of his way to favour me would be worth praying to in the first place. Maybe I’ll stick it out for 6 years and 364 days just to annoy them.


3 Responses to “choosing a coffin”

  1. SilverTiger Says:

    People remembering you in their prayers doesn’t seem to do any good, no matter what religion they practise. This has been proved scientifically.

    Some experiments were performed in the US. Hospital patients were divided into two groups and one half was prayed for while the other half was not. Neither the patients nor those attending them (doctors, nurses, etc.) knew which group any patient belonged to.

    When the data were subsequently published, findings seemed to indicate that those who had been prayed for did slightly better than the others in terms of recovery, etc. but when the figures were re-examined, errors were found in the statistical treatment and when these were corrected, there was no discernible difference between the two groups.

    Of course, if you know you are being prayed for, this can make a difference, depending on your beliefs. The mind is a marvelous and mysterious organism and can affect the body in ways we do not understand. I can quite well believe that a devout Christian would benefit from knowing that the congregation of his church is praying for his recovery.

  2. You say the Lisu are Buddhist in name only; what religion do they follow? Or more accurately I guess, how are their rituals different from Thai Buddhism? Are they related to any tribes in Viet Nam?

  3. tomeemayeepa Says:

    Not all Lisu are ‘Buddhist in name only’: about 20% are Christian as the missionaries have, unfortunately, been active there since the 1970’s. Those that call themselves Buddhist normally don’t share many Buddhist beliefs or follow Buddhist practices (there are no Buddhist temples in their villages, for example.)They can best be described as animist as their belief in spirits is important to them and villages do have an area where offerings etc are made to the spirits. The more traditional ones still believe in a sort of Chief Spirit who decides when it’s time for humans to die. They used to believe in men-tigers and vampires but I haven’t met any who do seriously now. They all, however, believe firmly in the God, Money. I think all the hilltribes are traditionally animist, as in many ways are Northern Thais. Most Lisu religious practices seem to involve slaughtering pigs or reading the future in the livers of chickens under the guidance of shamans.
    There are no Lisu in Vietnam (or Laos), only in Yunnan, Burma, Thailand and a few in India.

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