Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Materiality and Death: Visual Arts and Northern Thai Funerals

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Materiality and Death: Visual Arts and Northern Thai Funerals

Article excerpt

Death and its aftermath are fraught with uncertainty. The living employ rituals and ceremonies as ways to frame and manage this uncertainty and hold great significance through the words and actions that are utilised throughout. Central to the ceremonies, and of assistance with the transition of death in general, are works of art that put the concerns and wishes of the living for the dead into physical form. The majority of these objects are temporary, either burned together with the body or displayed for some time at the wat (Buddhist temple-monastery). The Northern Thai response to death and its manifestation in cremation structures and banners is not unique in that it is part of a larger visual language seen throughout Southeast Asia and the Buddhist world. However, relatively little attention has been given to these works of art and the role of materiality in Buddhist funerals. (1) Yet the relationship that is formed between the funerary arts, the deceased, and the attendees of the funeral demonstrates the agency of these art objects in transforming the trajectory of the deceased's next life and the expectations of the living. (2)

Because of their temporary nature, funerary arts have been continually overlooked by art historians used to accessing extant materials in collections and archives, and also by Buddhist studies scholars focusing on the texts and actions employed in the ceremonies. Drawn from my observations of funerals from 2006 through 2014 in Chiang Mai and Lamphun provinces and interviews with monks, novice monks, producers of funerary arts, and members of the general population in 2013 and 2014, the research presented here seeks to reflect the active culture of Buddhist practice in Northern Thailand. For the most part these interviews and funerals took place in or near cities. Comparative research in more rural areas is needed. This work explores the impermanent arts of the funeral, at a time when many worry that Northern Thai practices are disappearing in favour of traditions imported from Bangkok.

This article aims to open a dialogue on the arts of death and cremation in Southeast Asia through a discussion of Northern Thai banners and cremation structures, and encourage a greater collaboration between ethnographic and art historical methods in the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Doing so will lead to the recognition that funerary arts create an experience that cannot be overlooked, an experience that ensures the connection between the material and the spiritual realms. Through their use at funeral ceremonies, funerary arts become the agents that assure a successful transition from death to rebirth and from one world into the next.

The temporary arts of funerals in Northern Thailand and across Buddhist Southeast Asia are impermanence made physical. (3) Coupled with the words and actions of monks throughout the funeral, funerary arts help to mediate the boundary between the living and the dead that is present until the deceased is cremated. (4) The arts of this study make the reality of death and transition immediate and tangible. They also serve as reminders of Buddhist ideals like impermanence (anicca) and non-substance (anatta), as well as local Southeast Asian Buddhist values such as the importance of merit and the riches that await the meritorious once they reach the heavenly realms. By giving physical form to these abstract concepts, funerary arts provide materiality to the otherwise immaterial; they play a critical role in engaging viewers to consider a life well-lived, reflect on their own lives, and imagine the possibilities for improvement in their next birth cycle. As such, they are part of the larger world of Buddhist art that focuses on the accessibility of the immaterial through an aesthetically pleasing, concrete form.

The role of objects in religious practice, for which the Northern Thai funerary arts are an exceptional example, cannot be overstated. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.