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Tsunami: Thousands Of Cremations A Grim Task

Tsunami: Thousands Of Cremations A Grim Task

By Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- Cremating thousands of tsunami victims at Buddhist temples has become a grim task, but Thailand's monks are trained by "corpse meditation" and staring at photos of decomposing bodies to deal with the transitory nature of life.

Fresh bodies, bloated and decomposed beyond recognition, were still being brought to Buddhist temples on Sunday (Jan. 2).

Thai recovery teams were riding atop elephants which were draped with chains to drag away debris so bodies could be pulled from hard-to-reach, jungle-covered regions, a government-run TV channel broadcasted on Sunday (Jan. 2).

Each corpse was then wrapped in a plastic sheet and tied to the elephants' tusks, with ropes lashed to thick bamboo poles for additional support, enabling each elephant to carry one body at a time, dangling horizontally from its white tusks.

"I was actually talking to volunteers who were helping shifting bodies, up in a very badly hit area, Khao Lak, and into the temple," said Siripanyo Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk who traveled to Phuket from his monastery, Wat Pah Nanachat, in eastern Thailand's Ubon Ratchathani.

"It's just way too much for people to handle. People are, within one or two days, becoming basically traumatized, operating very much on adrenaline, getting hardly any sleep," the shaven-headed monk, wrapped in a traditional rust-colored robe, said in a recorded interview on Sunday (Jan. 2).

More than 4,800 corpses, about half of them foreigners, piled up so quickly after the tsunamis on Dec. 26, that there was not enough refrigerated morgue space to store them all for identification.

Thai officials piled many of the bodies outdoors at Buddhist temples, and packed dry ice onto the shrouded mounds, while medical personnel extracted DNA samples which could be better preserved.

More than 2,400 Thai corpses were being cremated according to traditional Buddhist rites, sometimes without identification.

Foreigners were insisting that all of the more than 2,400 international tourists who perished have their identities confirmed before the bodies are cremated, buried, or shipped home, adding to the burden.

Thai officials rushed refrigerated trucks, formaldehyde and other preservatives, plastic body bags, and additional personnel to Phuket, Khao Lak and other hard-hit zones, but they have not been able to fully cope with the thousands of dead.

Buddhist monks performing rites, cremations and after-death chants to chase away lingering ghosts were also working hard.

Years of special "corpse meditation" enabled each monk, or "bhikkhu", to deal with the nightmarish tasks.

"Corpse contemplation, or corpse meditation, would be just literally [meditating on] a picture of a dead body, or a body at one of the actual stages of decomposition," Siripanyo Bhikkhu, 34, said.

The macabre photographs, which many Thai monks keep in their personal possession and are publicly sold in religious shops throughout Thailand, include news photos of people killed in accidents, suicides, fires, and also medical autopsy pictures of corpses open during dissection or sewn up.

Some photos show the grisly progression of decomposition on the human body.

"After one or two days, you sort of see a change, a bloating, a blue-ishness," Siripanyo Bhikkhu said.

The purpose of this common, traditional form of meditation is "simply to hold in your mind, very clearly, that when you look at a [living] person, you're seeing only the external aspect of that physical person. We just sort of live in denial of the fact that we have all these organs and bones and liquids and fluids," he said.

"We say, 'everyone has a human heart', but what does it look like? We forget. We are obsessed with the externals. No one wants to see the internals. But we try to see them in an equal light, neither delighting nor being repelled by the attractive or the unattractive signs of the external or the internal," he said.

"It is very common with us to have [corpse meditation] pictures with us, to use them, or just to have in your hut, or have with you when you are eating, or just to look at and to contemplate," he said.

As he spoke, the monk sat cross-legged on the grass at Phuket's City Hall, which is the main volunteer emergency center for Thais and foreigners searching for missing people or helping with the recovery.

Siripanyo Bhikkhu has two specific photographs that he uses when he practices corpse meditation.

"I have a picture of a cremation with a body very visibly burning on a pyre," he said.

"I have another picture of a skeleton, a human skeleton. Just as a reminder that everyone you are talking to, or yourself, is this bone structure supporting the whole thing. Sometimes, just that can be a very powerful reminder of what we call the true nature of life.

"I have quite a few [corpse photos] actually. Say, about half a dozen. Some monks like to have a lot, to have a variety. Some monks don't have any because they have them in the monastery.

"We have a skeleton hanging in a closet, in a glass case, actually in our hall. And a baby, a little newborn baby which died in birth, in a jar. We also have the feet of this skeleton. And that's on public display, so when people come in our monastery they are reminded of the transitory nature of life.

"It's very common. It sounds incredibly gruesome and almost bizarre. But it is totally, totally normal and understood in Thailand.

"That's what monasteries are for, they remind us of the true nature of life, which is this impermanence and transitory nature."

While the daily cremations of tsunami victims at Buddhist temples along the west coast are scenes of misery and despair for many witnesses, this Buddhist-majority society has a tradition of grieving differently than most countries.

"When we have cremations in our monasteries, basically they are like an open cremation, so as the coffin burns, the corpse is then burning on a wooden pyre," Siripanyo Bhikkhu said.

"Interestingly enough, all the relatives, all the kids, will also go and view the corpse, will just stand around and watch granny burning. It's very, very normal. Very much at the heart of this place is impermanence."


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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