Traditional Buddhist funerals in Thailand, which often last for several days, have been dramatically shortened in recent weeks as the country faces its third and largest wave of COVID-19 infections. Replacing the communal traditional funeral rites are brief and highly sanitized ceremonies, with robes and formal wear replaced by ankle-to-neck personal protective equipment (PPE) and bright yellow plastic boots for easy disinfecting.
Adding to the difficulties faced by funeral service providers is the number of deaths in the country, many concentrated in the capital Bangkok and surrounding areas.
Officials for the Siam-Nonthaburi Foundation work with the Nonthaburi temple of Wat Rat Prakong Tham, located just outside of Bangkok, to provide free funerals and cremation services for people unable to afford them. While they normally handle one funeral per day, in recent weeks that number has risen to four per day.
Workers from the Siam-Nonthaburi Foundation, like others handling the dead and interacting with their loved-ones, are putting safety for all ahead of tradition. As such, services must be performed quickly and with all possible safety precautions, according to Pairat Soottoop, an official with the foundation. “This is a risky job, a very difficult job,” he observed. (France 24)
On 5 May, volunteers dressed in full PPE gear could be seen carrying a gleaming gold-and-white casket out of an ambulance and transferring it to the Wat Rat Prakong Tham crematorium. Under normal circumstances, families would be allowed to spend time with the deceased and place flowers on the body before it is moved to the flames of the crematorium. But with current precautions in place, family members of the 59-year-old woman who had passed away could only offer brief words before offering robes to a Buddhist altar.
After their brief farewells, family members were ushered out of the crematorium area and volunteers disinfected their offerings. Attendant Buddhist monks, maintaining a safe distance from the family members and volunteers, chanted blessings throughout the process.
Pairat Soottoop, who has seen a number of similar fast-tracked funerals in recent weeks advises people to keep their elders safe. “Most of the dead who are brought here are elderly,” he said. (France 24)
While Thailand’s first wave was barely noticed around the world, with the official daily new case count barely reaching 100 in March and April 2020, its second wave, running from December 2020 through February of this year, saw spikes of new cases nearing 1,000. Nonetheless, the nation recorded fewer than 100 deaths total throughout the pandemic until mid-April, as the third wave began in earnest. The current count of daily deaths as of 11 May is 421 with 85,005 total confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization.*
The new wave of infections, which has seen many days with over 2,000 new cases in this country of some 69 million people, has been linked to the more virulent B117 strain of the virus first detected in Britain. The variant was first linked to nightclubs in Bangkok in early April.
Last week, the Thai authorities said they had recorded the first case of the Brazil variant in an individual in state quarantine. The Brazil variant has been known to reinfect people who have already had the original strain. Health authorities in Thailand have also confirmed today that they have identified cases of the virus variant first found in India.
Holidays and public events in the predominantly Buddhist country have been celebrated cautiously in the best of times and toned down significantly in recent weeks. Last month’s lunar new year celebrations were muted as officials feared an outbreak of cases in the wake of travel and family and communal celebrations.**
* World Health Organization Thailand dashboard
** Thailand Marks Second New Year with Muted Celebrations as COVID-19 Precautions Continue (buddhistdoor Global)
Thai funeral services shortened due to COVID-19 deaths (CNA)
Thai funeral services shortened due to Covid-19 deaths (France 24)
Multi-day traditional Thai funerals shortened for Covid-19 safety (The Thaiger)
Coronavirus: world’s most vaccinated nation sees cases double; variant first identified in India found in Thailand (South China Morning Post)