Noting the marked scarcity of cemeteries as we travelled around Thailand, I did some research. I checked the demographics.
According to the latest available census data, approximately 94.6 percent of the population self-identifies as Theravada Buddhist.
That sent me on a quest to see what it means to be a Theravada Buddhist.
The teachings of Buddhism are based on the fact that one’s life does not begin with birth and end with death. Instead those events are merely seen as links in a chain of our lives, each conditioned by volitional acts (karma) that were committed in previous existences. The very concept of karma (the law of cause and effect) in the Buddhist tradition suggests that self-serving acts, such as selfishness, gluttony, greed and craving, will ultimately lead to pain and suffering. On the other side of the coin, positive acts, such as love, tolerance and compassion, will eventually lead to happiness and well-being. The enlightened one teaches that it is only by eliminating desire that one can reach the penultimate goal of Buddhism: peace of mind. The highest and most revered ideal in Theravada Buddhism is the attainment of self-perfection through Nirvana (Nibbhana), an inexpressible and incontrovertible state unconditioned by desire, suffering, or further rebirth, in which an individual is completely at peace with his or her surroundings.
More reading told me that cremation is traditional in Buddhism but I wondered why I’d not seen many columbaria. Then a Thai friend told me that ashes are generally scattered in the ocean or on a river. It was all becoming clear. But then I visited Wat Phutthaisawan, one of the working temples in Ayutthaya.
Here, in Wat Phutthaisawan, tucked away in the back, I came across what looked to me like a cemetery. What I took to be grave markers were actually funerary stupas.
Burial stupas hold relics from the funeral pyre. Commemorative stupas mark the place of an event or occasion in the Buddha’s life. And, votive stupas are erected to make a dedication of good will or to accumulate merit.
The essence of all the stupas remains the same: to symbolically show practitioners the path to liberation and enlightenment, to give them an opportunity to make offerings and to help them purify negative impressions and increase positive ones, thus accumulating merit and wisdom. All this creates the conditions for reaching the state of a buddha.
I’ve searched and searched and searched to no avail. I can only assume that these funerary stupas were built by relatives to contain the ashes of those interred. Building such a memorial would be good karma. Visiting it and bringing flowers and other offerings, would stand one in good stead in the next life.
There’s a curious mix of old and new at Wat Phutthaisawan, Ayutthaya. The newer funerary stupas are ornate, colourful, stylish, while the older ones appear to be more serviceable. Simple. Plain. Functional. Many are crumbling; perhaps there’s no one left to visit and take care of them.
There’s also what I’ve taken to be a columbarium. I can’t think what else it might be. A repository for the ashes of a family perhaps? Or a community? Or just a group of random strangers who find themselves neighbours in death. All the inscriptions are in Thai so impossible for me to read.
A pack of dogs ran wild through the place. None looked too friendly. It was almost as if they were standing guard over their dead, their howls and barks providing compelling background music to a strangely beautiful place.
The funerary stupas at Wat Phutthaisawan are worth a visit. Just turn left by the prayer bells instead of going to the temple. Walk past the prayer hall and you’ll see it straight ahead.