Thai Funerals: Customs, Traditions & Etiquette

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Thailand has always been recognizable thanks to its unique food culture, lush landscapes, and friendly people. It seems fitting that alongside its cultural riches, Thailand would also have strong and enduring traditions for funerals and memorials. Though many countries are constantly modernizing, Thailand makes sure its funeral traditions harken back to years of practice.

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The majority of Thai people believe in Buddhism, which is focused on reincarnation and the ability for people’s souls to move to a new organism. Thai funerals reiterate this theme throughout their funeral rites, with a few additional blessings for good luck in the next life.

If you’re attending a Thai funeral or simply curious, read below to learn what to expect at a funeral and to learn more about the customs and traditions.

COVID-19 tip: If you're planning a virtual Thai funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still adapt many of these traditions, like the 100-day ceremony, receptions, and pre-funeral rituals, to include your online guests. Just speak with your funeral director or event planner to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.

Thai Pre-Funeral Customs 

After a loved one dies, the family traditionally keeps the body at home for a week, giving time for extended family members to reach the location. Since some family members might need to travel long distances, a week is customary before the Thai funeral service

The family will also do a bathing ceremony. This starts with a family member pouring a jug of water on everyone’s hands, including the hands of the deceased. A sacred, white string is then tied around the deceased person’s ankles and wrists. A monk blesses the string before the bathing ceremony. In Thai tradition, tying the ankles and wrists is a sign to give safe passage to the next life.

Finally, family members place the deceased person’s hands in a praying position. For good luck, family places a lotus flower and incense in the person’s hands. Some families also believe in putting a coin in the mouth of the deceased as a way should they need a form of currency to pass into their next life. 

Over the next several days, monks visit to chant over the deceased. These chanting sessions typically last an hour, and the family celebrates between sessions. On the 7th day of chanting, the funeral takes place. 

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Thai Funeral Traditions

Most Thai people follow traditional Buddhist funeral practices, with some other rites specific to a region of Thailand. Cremation is the preferred method of burial for Buddhists, so the funeral traditions will always culminate with the burning of the body.

Tip: If you'd like to ask for donations to help with funeral costs or to give to charity in memory of your loved one, you can set up a fundraiser online with a website like Everloved.

Order of service or ceremony

In the Thai tradition, a funeral is a way to symbolize one’s rebirth into his or her next life, thanks to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. As such, funerals are a time to celebrate.

After the cleaning ceremony, the family will lead a procession to the crematory. Monks follow behind the procession holding the casket. In Buddhism, the procession will circle the Thai temple three times counterclockwise before heading to the crematory.  

Once at the crematory, the monks bring the casket to a high table. Family and guests cover the table with a white or black cloth along with the deceased person’s favorite flowers. With the table brimming with adornments and flowers, the family says a eulogy honoring their loved one. Mourners pray during this time to prevent the deceased from becoming an evil spirit. 

Finally, everyone placed a flower made of wood on a tray under the casket. The cremation then begins, which takes about an hour to complete. Thai people believe that cremation helps release a person’s spirit into their next life. After this, final prayers are said before the casket moves to the cremation chamber. 

Flowers and wreaths

Flowers and wreaths play a large role in Thai funerals. In Thai tradition, the family and guests decorate the casket in an array of funeral flowers and blooming wreaths. There are no limitations to which flowers are on the casket. It’s common to choose the deceased person’s favorite to adorn their casket. 

Flowers are also used in the funeral itself. At the start of the ceremony, each guest gets a flower made of wood shavings. Guests put these under the casket as a symbol of the funeral fire. Like in other parts of the world, different flowers carry different meanings. The giving of flowers is a large part of Thai culture, so it’s no surprise they’re also a part of funeral traditions. 

100 days 

The celebration after cremation continues for 100 more days. In Thai tradition, there is what’s known as the 100-day ceremony, which usually takes place at the end of this lengthy time period.

In Buddhism, there’s a period of time after a death where the soul is still present. At 100 days, this return to earth is no longer considered possible. The person has finally proceeded towards death and his or her next life. During the 100-day ceremony, it’s common for the family to celebrate. Friends and family are welcome to a meal and merriment. 

Food and drink

Food and drink are a large part of the Thai funeral tradition. The deceased person’s family serves large meals throughout the seven days leading up to the cremation, and may even continue after the first week. The meals provide a way to honor the death of a loved one. 

As for what’s served, this will depend on the local region. Each region of Thailand is home to its own local favorites. Common dishes include melon soup, vegetable curry, noodles, and pork. It’s polite for guests to bring a small donation to share the expense of the food. 

Typical music

Music is a way for the Thai people to find joy in the funeral process. On the day of the funeral, music directs the funeral procession as well as to aid in the celebration. The music will also include interludes of chanting monks or be filled with religious tones.

It's common for a grieving family to play funeral songs loudly so the event can be heard from anywhere in a village. 

Other customs

A Thai funeral is more like a party than a traditional western funeral. A Thai funeral can feature barbeques, music, dance, and even some gambling and will be spread throughout the seven days leading up to the funeral.

While it may seem uncommon to have people celebrate so festively after a loved one’s death, it is an integral part of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. Those who have died have not fully passed on since they’re either finding themselves in their next lives or reaching Nirvana. Both of these are joyous occasions that highlight the circle of life.

Thai Funeral Etiquette

If you’re attending a Thai funeral, there are a few pieces of useful etiquette to know, such as attire, flowers, and the types of gifts you can give.

Funeral attire

Though it is a joyous celebration of a person’s passing to the next life, Thai families usually ask people to wear black or white to a funeral. Mixing both white and black is also appropriate, as these colors are heavily used throughout the funeral events and procession. The funeral attire is usually informal, though traditional Thai dress is common. 

Since the service will likely be in the temple, it’s important to dress in temple attire, which is basically any long and loose clothing that can cover anyone from head to toe.

Role of gifts, sympathy cards, and flowers

Gifts are a large part of Thai funerals. It is common to give the deceased’s family a floral wreath for the casket, flowers, garlands, candles, incense sticks, or a framed photo of the deceased. If you’ll be attending one of the funeral meals, consider bringing a donation.

Make sure it’s gifted in an envelope, as the families will open these gifts in private. 

Thai Burials and Remembering the Deceased

As mentioned above with a Buddhist funeral, it is uncommon for the Thai to bury their deceased. In the Buddist tradition, there is a cremation after the funeral ceremony. What happens to the ashes after the ceremony depends on the family. 

Today, families are likely to scatter the ashes of their loved ones at an important place, usually over a body of water. The scattering of ashes helps bring the soul to his or her next life faster, according to Thai beliefs. It’s also a symbolic way to wash away one’s sins in this life. 

Aside from the scattering of ashes, It’s also common for the family to keep the ashes at home in an urn. Families continue to celebrate their deceased loved one for up to 100 days after the death. After this period, the soul is now in its next life. 

Thai Celebrations of Life and Death

The Thai have a very different perspective on death compared to western beliefs. As a mostly Buddhist country, most people practice traditional Buddhist funerals, focused on traditions and customs.

Thai funerals are truly a celebration of life. They cherish the small things, from the decorating of the casket to enjoying a meal with friends. Since celebrations are so extravagant, these funerals earned a reputation for having some of the highest funeral costs in the world comparatively. 

Whether you’re attending your first Thai funeral or you’re interested in the culture, this guide shines a light on these unique traditions. For the Thai, life doesn’t stop at death — and that can be a reason to celebrate. 


Sources

  1. Cunningham, Clark. “Three Funerals in Rural Central Thailand.” University of Illinois: Spurlock Museum of World Cultures. 1 March 2017. Spurlock.illinois.edu
  2. Hall, Rebecca S. “Between the Living and the Dead: Three-Tail Funeral Banners of Northern Thailand.” University of Michigan: ARS Orientals. Vol. 46. Quod.lib.umich.edu
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