Last year in Vietnam, I stepped off a motorbike taxi on the wrong side and burned my leg on the super hot engine. I felt pretty stupid, until everyone I talked to started telling me their similar burn stories, and I soon learned that this circular burn on the inside of your right calf is pretty common and is even known among the foreign community as your "Vietnamese birthmark." Now I only have a very light scar to show for it.
This year (ahem- today) I got my first burn in Laos. I went to a funeral this afternoon- the father of one of Sarah's English students. This was my first funeral in Laos, and it was a very interesting cultural experience. I have lots of questions about different parts of the ceremony- and want to know what different things meant. Here's a summary for you:
The entire family of the deceased man had become "monks/nuns" for the day (to show honor I believe?)- the men all shaved their heads and wore the orange robes. The women wore all white- except for the widow- who was dressed in black. When I arrived at the temple area, the family was all seated together and some monks were leading some readings, chants, etc (I guess they'd already given a history of his life before I arrived). There was a long piece of white material strung from the decorated stand that held the casket to the place where the family was sitting. Sarah explained that they were giving directions and blessings to the dead man's spirit- so it wouldn't get lost as it journeyed from this life into the next.
After the chanting was over, they took down the white material. Then everyone present picked up a white paper flower, some incense, and something (food?) wrapped in a banana leaf and set it by the casket and "nopped" (bowed with hands pressed together) the deceased man and his family members (like a greeting line). There was a nice picture of the man sitting in front of the casket, as well as lots of flowers. After people had placed gifts by the casket and greeted the family, they washed their hands in buckets of water (I believe that is also related to the spirits somehow).
Lots of family pictures were taken in front of the casket stand- which was quite decorated. After that, men poured gasoline all of over the casket and the stand. I honestly can't imagine watching a loved one be cremated. I kept remembering funerals I've been at- and it seems the moment the casket is lowered into the grave is one of the hardest ever- so final. I couldn't believe it when the sons were the ones who actually lit the fire. Wow.
Just after the casket was lit, the strangest thing happened. Candy was randomly being thrown everywhere, and everyone was running around excitedly scrambling to grab pieces of candy all over the ground. It just seemed SOOOO out of place to me. The only thing I can figure is that so little emotion was shown (Lao people amaze me at concealing emotion)- and I wonder if it wasn't a safe outlet/distraction from such an emotionally heavy occassion? I honestly have no idea.
All of this took about one hour in pretty extreme heat (between 90 and 100 degrees). People were leaving. We were standing a good distance from the burning casket. At one point, we heard the mother of the dead man say she thought she saw his body through the flames, and she said, "He's sleeping comfortably." Oh, man- can you imagine?
Well, all this leads me to say that all of the sudden, something hit my chest and stung. Yep, the wind had carried a spark from the fire, and I now have a new burn for the year. It was honestly so random, and in so many ways, quite hilarious. Oh, my. I hope it doesn't leave a scar! But whatever the case, I'm thankful it didn't burn my eye, or hair, or clothes- it really could've been much worse (as I heard a story of a girl who badly burned her head at a funeral recently). Moral of the story? Funerals are dangerous- bring an umbrella.