• Fine Arts Department of Culture Ministry is working on the royal crematorium of the late King Bhumibol which is expected to finish around September. Photo courtesy of Fine Arts Department
  • Fine Arts Department of Culture Ministry is working on the royal crematorium of the late King Bhumibol which is expected to finish around September. Photo courtesy of Fine Arts Department

Royal funeral rites explained

Kingdom Grieves January 20, 2017 21:56

By The Nation

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Ajarn Tongthong to share a history of monarch’s cremations on Thursday



Public interest is keen and growing in plans for the funeral of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol. As the groundwork is laid for the royal crematorium expected to be finished in September, Professor Tongthong Chandransu, an expert on Thai history and the monarchy in particular, will talk about royal funerals on Thursday at the Siam Society.

“I’ll be talking about royal funerals and cremations in Thailand over the past 100 years,” he says. “I’ll be referring to old records and images depicting these important events from the death of King Chulalongkorn [Rama V] to the impending cremation of our beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej [Rama IX].”

Hinduism and Buddhism, the religions that have had the greatest influence in Thailand, also inform the monarchy and its rituals, including those performed following the death of members of the royal family. 

The rites accompanying their funerals are largely governed by Buddhist philosophy, Thongthong says, but with clear evidence of Hindu traditions influencing the proceedings. 

Steeped in tradition

“One of the clearest manifestations of Hindu influence is the Phra Merumas, or Phra Meru, an edifice constructed only for the solemn ceremony of a royal cremation. ‘Phra Meru’ represents Mount Meru, the abode of the gods in Hindu mythology.”

By tradition, the Phra Meru is built of wood and decorated with paper, dried flowers and other ornamental features in carved wood. It is in sharp contrast to the use of more durable materials in modern buildings and thus construction takes much longer, slowed further by the many merit-making ceremonies involved. 

“In Thailand the year-long funeral ceremony culminates in the rites of cremation, with the ensuing ashes used in subsequent merit-making ceremonies,” Tongthong notes.

The professor, holding degrees from Chulalongkorn and New York universities, was called to the bar in 1980 and has been a teacher in Chula’s Faculty of Law for just as long. His master’s thesis examined the Thai monarch’s royal prerogative, reflecting Thongthong’s historical approach to legal analyses of royal roles, and remains one of the frequently cited references on the subject.

After serving as dean of the Chulalongkorn Law School, he took on executive roles in several important public-sector offices, including the Ministry of Justice, the Office of the Education Council and the Prime Minister’s Office, though he has never stopped teaching at his alma mater. 

Most people known “Ajarn Tongthong” as the author of several books on the modernisation of the Thai court since the reign of Rama V. And his voice is familiar to many since he’s a regular TV commentator on royal ceremonies.

100 YEARS OF RITUAL

- Admission to Thursday’s talk is free for members of the Siam Society, their spouses and children and students with ID, and costs Bt200 for non-members. 

- Find out more at www.Siam-Society.org.