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Flames on a Hot Day

An hour past midday, an outdoor assembly of Laotians and I move like a herd to escape the smoke from a bonfire. We are on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, a wat, and the bonfire is a funeral pyre. Women and men cover their mouths with cloth, their faces suggesting that more than being worried about smoke in their lungs, they fear inhaling the emissions, and maybe the spirit, of the corpse. Ashes rain down on us, speckling everyone’s black hair with flecks of white.

A short while earlier, while saffron-robed monks chanted and prayed in the subtropical heat, a young Lao woman standing next to me explained in bashful English what was happening...and what had happened.

The Lao lady, poised and somber, is a cousin of the dead man’s wife. The deceased was thirty-eight, worked at the airport, and, judging by the couple of hundred people present, had many friends and relatives. Two days earlier, he and his wife were hit by a car while on a moped. The wife lies in the hospital with head wounds and limb fractures.

Because the death was by accident rather than disease, the family, believing that their home would be haunted by the deceased’s spirit, did not bring him home first to pay their final respects. Instead, following Buddhist tradition, the body went straight to the care of monks at the temple.

The young woman next to me says that unlike death by accident, death by disease can be assuaged when a young man or woman of the deceased’s family becomes a monk or a “nun” for a time; this results in the dead person’s elevation to a higher status in the next turn of the wheel of life. Death by accident offers no such option—only the prayers of monks already ordained can provide a possible promotion in the next reincarnation.

Following the monks’ prayers and chants, the casket, with a small wood-frame tower atop, painted white with flowery gold trim and peaked by a hand-fashioned cupola, is moved from the wat’s pavilion into the courtyard, where it is placed on a stone platform. Suddenly, a throng of children runs back and forth in front of the cremation stage—chasing candies thrown into the air by a smiling old man. A reminder that death is binary: either it strikes someone close to you and you grieve, or it happens on the other side of the window pane of caring. Even then, it serves to bring people together.

Flowers are carried to the casket in its new location, where it is opened for viewing so that family members, including the children, can pour onto the body the milk of coconuts, a symbol of purification. The dead man’s two children, a boy and a girl, perhaps ten and twelve years old, stand in front of the casket tower with family members and pose for photos. The girl holds a framed portrait of her father and bravely tries to contain her crying.

While the other children chase candies, two wires are strung up between the casket tower and the branches of an old tree in the courtyard. A man fiddles with two colorful cylinders, trying to mount them on the wires. They turn out to be firecracker rockets, each with a thick, yard-long fuse dangling from it.

The deceased’s little son, his face streaked with tears, receives two lit candles. A man directs the boy’s shaky hands to the fuses. Sparks appear, followed by hissing and whistles as the rockets streak along the guy wires, hit the casket tower, and explode. The kerosene sprinkled earlier on the casket is slow to ignite. Eventually the fire catches on and blazes, the cupola topples over in flames, and the tower and casket are being consumed.

With the casket now nearly gone, the crowd and I watch for any feature of the body within the flames. The Lao lady motions with her elbow to indicate she can see one of the dead man’s arms. Sure enough—it’s sticking up, bent, like he’s playing a drum. It’s blackened, but still stout, as if the flames have only glazed the skin (or maybe the arm has swelled). The Lao lady says the burning doesn’t seem to be going so well.

Before long we see the head, too, which also seems to resist the inferno, now amplified by some sort of gas burner underneath. The torso and upper legs are also apparent, even more so when the busy pyre attendant sticks a long bamboo pole beneath the corpse to lever it up, push away debris, and allow the fire to do its business. The pole rocks the stiff, charred body, making its outline clear indeed. I can see by the gazes of those around me, including the children, that I am not the only one mesmerized by the spectacle.

The Lao woman now tells me the dead man’s wife, whom she visited in the hospital just before coming to the temple, does not know her husband is dead. The family is worried that she, too, will die if she learns he did not survive. When she regained consciousness after the accident she immediately asked about her husband; they told her he was recovering in a different room. “As soon as I can walk, I want to see him,” she insisted.

But her husband, the father of her children—what is left of him in this turn of the wheel—now burns slowly on a hot Sunday afternoon in Vientiane, under the watchful eyes of his offspring and a crowd of onlookers who are certain of his fate.

I think of the little girl crying, holding a portrait of her father, and I try to imagine what she will remember of this day many years from now. And I think of my own little daughter.

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First published in KYSO Journal of Arts & Literature

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