- The grim task of cremating thousands of tsunami victims has fallen
to Thailand's saffron-robed monks, whose training requires them
to stare at photos of decomposing bodies to better understand the
transitory nature of life.
The bloated and decomposed bodies
still were being brought to Buddhist temples yesterday, in some
cases carried from the jungle on the tusks of elephants that are
being used to clear away debris.
Footage on government-run television
showed the bodies being wrapped in plastic sheets and tied to the
elephants' tusks, with ropes lashed to thick bamboo poles for additional
"I was talking to volunteers
who were shifting bodies in a very badly hit area, Khao Lak, and
into the temple," said Siripanyo Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk who
traveled to Phuket from his monastery in eastern Thailand.
"It's just way too much for people
to handle. People are, within one or two days, becoming basically
traumatized, operating very much on adrenaline, getting hardly any
sleep," said the shaven-headed monk.
Nearly 5,000 corpses, about half of
them foreigners, piled up so quickly after the tsunami on Dec. 26
that there was not enough morgue space to store them pending identification.
Thai officials piled many of the bodies
outdoors at Buddhist temples and packed dry ice onto the shrouded
mounds while medical personnel extracted DNA samples, which could
be better preserved.
More than 2,400 Thai corpses were
cremated according to traditional Buddhist rites, sometimes without
Thai officials rushed refrigerated
trucks, formaldehyde, plastic body bags and additional personnel
to Phuket, Khao Lak and other hard-hit zones, but they have not
been able to fully cope with the thousands of dead.
Buddhist monks performing rites, cremations
and after-death chants to chase away what they believe to be lingering
ghosts also were working hard.
Years of special "corpse meditation"
have helped each monk, or "bhikkhu," deal with the nightmarish
"Corpse contemplation, or corpse
meditation, would be just literally [meditating on] a picture of
a dead body, or a body at one of the actual stages of decomposition,"
said Siripanyo Bhikkhu, 34.
The macabre photographs, which many
monks keep among their personal possessions, are publicly sold in
religious shops throughout Thailand. They include news photos of
people killed in accidents, suicides and fires, as well as pictures
of corpses being dissected during autopsies.
Some photos show the grisly progression
of decomposition of the human body.
The purpose of this traditional form
of meditation is "simply to hold in your mind, very clearly,
that when you look at a [living] person, you're seeing only the
external aspect of that physical person."
"We just sort of live in denial
of the fact that we have all these organs and bones and liquids
and fluids," Siripanyo Bhikkhu said.
"We are obsessed with the externals.
No one wants to see the internals. But we try to see them in an
equal light, neither delighting nor being repelled by the attractive
or the unattractive signs of the external or the internal,"
"It is very common with us to
have [corpse meditation] pictures with us, to use them, or just
to have in your hut, or have with you when you are eating, or just
to look at and to contemplate," he said.
"It sounds incredibly gruesome
and almost bizarre. But it is totally, totally normal and understood
in Thailand," continued the monk, who sat cross-legged on the
grass at Phuket City Hall, which has become a disaster-relief center.
"That's what monasteries are
for: They remind us of the true nature of life, which is this impermanence
and transitory nature."
Although the daily cremations of tsunami
victims at temples along the west coast of Thailand evoke misery
and despair for many witnesses, members of this Buddhist-majority
society have a unique way of grieving.
"When we have cremations in our
monasteries, basically they are open — so, as the coffin burns,
the corpse is then burning on a wooden pyre," Siripanyo Bhikkhu
"All the relatives, all the kids
will go and view the corpse, will just stand around and watch granny
burning," he said. "It's very, very normal. Very much
at the heart of this place is impermanence." [WASHINGTON TIMES]