Costing Thailand’s exchequer a jaw-dropping $90 million, the five-day long cremation ceremony for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was one of the most elaborate, gold-saturated farewells the world had ever seen. But the premium to ensure the soul of the departed enters the next realm with pomp and circumstance isn’t limited only to the country’s almost God-like monarch.
For over a century, Thais of all social strata have been getting funeral books, called nang sue ngam sop, dedicated to them, as an integral part of their funeral ceremonies. Ranging in size from proper, leather-bound tomes to more modest flip-through, stapled booklets, these funeral books are part of a long-held tradition of gifts given out to attendees at funerals.
In fact, the first funeral book, of which 10,000 copies were made, was said to have been written in 1882 on the orders of King Chulalongkorn and dedicated to the memory of his wife Queen Sunanda Kumariratana and his daughter Princess Kannabhorn Bejaratana who drowned when the royal barge carrying them capsized into Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River.
From the grave
And while examples of necrological literature around the world are plenty — with references to Roman, Greek and Egyptian books of the dead — the Thainang sue ngam sop is a genre unto itself. Generally written by someone who knew the deceased well, these self-published books often contain detailed accounts from various aspects of their loved one’s life, including stories and anecdotes, all illustrated with photographs displaying cherished family portraits, graduation pictures and weddings. But one of the most interesting inclusions in these books that bring their importance to the fore of Thailand’s fine dining scene are their collection of recipes. Old, cherished family favourites that the deceased savoured during their lifetime find prime position in these books. Reading like any other well-researched and tried-and-tested cookbook recipe, these contain tips, cheat-sheets and even directions to the best markets to source the choicest ingredients!
So popular is the trend of culling these recipes that Nahm, one of the country’s top restaurants, has an entire menu of dishes based on such recipes. David Thompson, the man behind this fine-dining haven, boasts of a collection of over 500 funeral books which he painstakingly sourced, each of them featuring a unique recipe that he then distilled into his creations.
Gives a whole other meaning to the term ‘The dead do tell tales’, doesn’t it?
There’s no denying the fact that Filipinos love a good rumpus. One that’s always fuelled by copious amounts of eating, drinking and the national pass-time — singing karaoke. Ne’er an occasion goes by in the Philippines without some party of sorts to liven up the mood. Even a death in the family is no exception, where celebrating the deceased’s life is the most important of all things.
In fact, so elaborate and ostentatious can the funeral, and the wake before that get, that it’s not uncommon for a wake, called paglalamay in Tagalog, to go on for as long as 10 days before the burial! This is primarily because there are over 10 million balikbayan or Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), with most families having at least one such member working abroad who needs time to make it back for the funeral and burial.
It’s during these round-the-clock paglalamays that the family of the deceased is expected to feed and take care of the mourners who come by to pay their respects, with feasts and entertainment. Yes, karaoke included. And why not? In the Philippines the wake is meant to be a lively affair — a way to keep the grieving distracted and those keeping vigil awake.
Now, all this amounts to a neat little expense packet for the family, that many can ill-afford. So, in order to defray the expenses, it is perfectly acceptable for gambling syndicates to set up shop, slap bang in the middle of the wake, where the proceeds of the bets usually go to the family. The most common of all betting games is sakla, the local Pinoy (the Tagalog equivalent of the term-desi) version of Spanish tarot cards. This game is particularly common at wakes, because the family of the deceased gets a share of the winnings to help cover funeral expenses.
So popular and profitable are these wake wagers, that very often canny gambling syndicates are known to stage fake wakes in order to provide a venue for serious gamblers, because of the general lack of enforcement at funerals. Taking things to levels beyond morbidity, these fake wakes even have stand-in corpses that are often unclaimed bodies ‘rented’ from morgues.
Truly the lucrative business of death at its mercenary worst!
In her hesitant, but perfectly comprehensible English, she tells me her name is Xiu Ying and that she’s just turned 18. But one look at her waifish, schoolgirl frame and her shifty gaze lets me know that she might be embellishing the truth to a large degree.
Dressed in a black sequinned, corseted bustier and a matching pair of micro shorts that cling to her fishnet stockinged thighs, she takes centrestage, gyrating to the strains of a disco-style pop song. As the track progresses, Xiu Ying begins to divest herself of her costume’s components.
Her glossy white sailor hat is the first casualty, while her six-inch high, clear Plexiglas stilettos are the last…
You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m in some seedy strip club. But, I’m actually at the funeral of an 86-year-old grandfather of five at his home on the outskirts of Kunming — the capital of China’s southern Yunnan province. And Xiu Ying, like thousands of other young ladies is a member of China’s burgeoning funeral stripping industry. They are there to serve three purposes: celebrate the life of the deceased, appease wandering spirits, as well as attract and entertain mourners.
But all this doesn’t bode well for China’s Ministry of Culture, who have warned people to stop hiring strippers, while vowing to stamp out the practice with the help of the police, claiming that “these types of illegal operations disrupt order of the cultural market in the countryside and corrupt social morals and manners.” Interestingly, the business of funeral stripping is more popular outside the big cities. A report in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago, found that in rural China, there were a dozen “funeral performance troupes” which put on shows regularly, sometimes 20 in a month, and were paid roughly 2,000 yuan (about ₹20,000) by the family of the deceased for each performance.
Not just China, but even neighbouring Taiwan seems to have cottoned onto this trend. While Taiwan has always had the custom of hiring professional mourners, much like the rudaalis of Rajasthan, it is believed that the funeral stripper evolved almost residually from these paid mourners. Many of whom are known to sing, play musical instruments and even perform acrobatic feats for the entertainment of the funeral attendees.
But unlike their Chinese counterparts who perform only at the homes of the deceased, Taiwan’s funeral strippers perform on dianzi huache — trucks that have been converted — carnival float style — into raised platforms so that these women can sing, dance and do their bit as a truck drives ahead of the funeral procession.