BANGKOK, Thailand -- Rich or poor, king or commoner, when some Buddhists and Hindus die their funeral can include bending the corpse into an upright fetal position, or burying the body and later burning the bones in a "double funeral".

Buddhists and Hindus hope to ensure the best possible reincarnation, and eventually escape the cycle of rebirth to achieve nirvana.

Many of Cambodia's traditional rites appeared during week-long ceremonies in the capital, Phnom Penh, when former king Norodom Sihanouk was cremated in February.

Sihanouk was entitled to have an elaborate royal cremation, but had indicated preference for a simpler, albeit relatively grandiose, funeral.

"Before King Sihanouk, the body of a [previous] deceased king, with the help of [cotton] strings, was put in the position of 'a fetus in the mother's womb' and the body was put in a big urn," said Ang Choulean, a professor at the faculty of archeology in the prestigious Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

"The height of the urn was shorter than the size of a human being, because the body of the dead had to be bent, like a fetus in the mother's womb," said Ang Choulean, who is also an anthropologist.

"The main idea is animistic. We believe in reincarnation," Ang Choulean said in an interview at his home on Phnom Penh's outskirts.

"This explains the fetal position, because the aim is that he or she reincarnates."

Sihanouk did not want his corpse scrunched into the position of an unborn baby.

So his body was laid on his back in a horizontal, rectangular coffin for his cremation.

Sihanouk's corpse also did not wear a mask of gold over his face, even though he was entitled to by royal tradition.

"No, there was no golden mask, because we saw his face.

"I saw in a photograph the cremation of [Cambodian] King Sisowath in 1928, and in the photograph we can see a golden mask," he said.

"We never say a king 'dies.' We say, 'a king goes to heaven'."

Sihanouk's pyre was lit with a traditional "sacred fire" captured directly from sunlight, through a magnifying glass, to ensure the flame was "pure."

"The profound signification of the fire ritual is on Brahmanism and animism," Ang Choulean said.

Those ancient beliefs have defined, detailed and complex funeral rites older than Buddhism, which was founded in the 5th century.

Centuries ago in India, the birthplace of Hinduism, some Brahman priests obtained a pure, sacred flame by going to where lightning hit, according to scholars.

Any resulting wild fire would be used to light an oil lamp or candle, which was kept burning so its flame could later be used for royal cremations and other holy ceremonies.

In Asian countries with deep Hindu and Buddhist traditions -- including Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam and the Indonesian island of Bali -- Brahman priests often perform vital roles during funerals, which they did for Sihanouk's cremation.

In 1925, when Thailand was named Siam, the death of their King Vajiravudh was conducted with Brahman priests who also described the event as the monarch's "migration to heaven."

The Siamese arranged for the body of King Vajiravudh, who is also known as Rama VI, to be placed in the fetal position before cremation.

King Vajiravudh's body was "lifted, the palms joined opposite the face by means of an iron clamp, a sort of wedge is placed under the chin, and the knees are lifted to the level of the hands and tied in a sitting position," wrote the respected H. G. Quaritch Wales in 1931, after working in the British Lord Chamberlain's Department in the Court of Siam in Bangkok.

By joining the king's palms, and binding his hands together, the deceased monarch appeared to be paying homage to the Buddha.

"Buddhism brings a moral consideration of 'What is death?' 'What is life?' 'Life is impermanent'," Ang Choulean said.

For common people in Southeast Asia, Buddhist and Hindu funerals often include some animist rites but simplified.

"Today, the ideal is to cremate the body as quickly, as soon as possible, after the person dies. The traditional animism in Southeast Asia is almost contrary to this," Ang Choulean said.

In Cambodia and on Indonesia's Hindu-majority island of Bali, a common person's corpse is sometimes buried for one year or more, and then disinterred and burnt.

"This is what specialists call a 'double funeral'," he said.

Not everyone performs such a complex, animist ritual.

For those who do, when they dig up a grave, they recover mostly bones for cremation, because the body has decomposed.

"The explanation to justify the practice is this: our body is composed of four elements. Earth, water, wind and fire," Ang Choulean said.

The initial burial involves "the role of the earth's soil, and the water which is contained in the soil. All your flesh, little by little, goes away due to the action of these two components.

"The two other components? The fire of the cremation, and the air, because without air you cannot have fire."

In Cambodia, King Sisowath's body was allowed to decompose in a special chamber for eight months, and its bones were then retrieved for cremation, Ang Choulean said.

King Vajiravudh of Siam similarly was allowed to decompose for several months in a tall urn, attended by Brahman priests and others, and his bones were then cremated, Wales wrote.

Sihanouk died in Beijing, China, on October 15.

His body was quickly flown to Phnom Penh, and laid out in an open casket for relatives, dignitaries and others to visit.

His cremation was on February 4, which included parading his coffin through Phnom Penh's crowded streets atop a carriage symbolically pulled by a mythical Hamza bird of paradise.

The procession was driven to a tall, newly built, shrine-like funeral pyre symbolizing Hinduism's Golden Mount Meru, next to Sihanouk's former palace.

The lavishly adorned pyre contained an internal combustion chamber where the body was burnt, allowing the big, surrounding structure to remain intact.

After the cremation, Sihanouk's doused ashes were arranged by priests, supposedly in the shape of a flat, doll-sized human figure, with its head area appearing to face away from the rising sun, in keeping with ancient Hindu and Brahman royal funeral rites.

"The [ash] face starts by facing a direction other than east. There is a ritual conversation, one or two people say 'Is this right?' and the other official says, 'No this is not the right direction'."

The process is repeated by facing the head of ashes in all four directions, Ang Choulean said, "until at the end, they put him facing the east.

"It is called 'reversing the body' because in reversing the body, you reverse everything. Reversing the form, you reverse forever the individuality of the dead person.

"From that time on, the dead person is totally cut off from our world. This is the aim. This is very, very important."


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

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(Copyright 2013 Richard S Ehrlich)