IIAS Newsletter 10, Autumn 1996, Southeast Asia 12

IIASNewsletterNo 10Regions

Southeast Asia


The Thai Royal Cremation

& the Recursiveness of Ritual


I heard first about the cremation towers of Thailand when I consulted Dr David Stuart-Fox of the Leiden Museum of Anthropology about cremation rites in Bali. He showed me nineteenth-century pictures from Burma and mentioned that such towers had been constructed in Thailand even later but were restricted to royalty.

I had actually seen a plate of the 1926 'funeral pyre' of King Vajiravudh in H.G.Quaritch Wales' classic Siamese State Ceremonies of 1931 (reprinted in 1992), but paid no attention to the tiny human figures on that photograph, not realizing what a huge construction that pyre had been. Imagine my delighted surprise when I was invited, less than half a year later, to attend the cremation of the Princess Mother of Thailand in March, 1996. I was permitted to move around freely and take photographs. The 1996 cremation tower, depicted here as Plate 1, lacks human figures altogether so we have sketched them in to give an idea not only of its beauty and elegance but also of its size.

Her Royal Highness Somdej Phra Sri Nakharintharabaromarachanii, the Princess Mother, or Somdej Yaa, 'Royal Grandmother,' as she was affectionately called, was born on October 21, 1900. She became the wife of Prince Mahidol and the mother of two kings: King Ananda Mahidol, who died young in 1946, and his younger brother, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the present King of Thailand. The Princess Mother was almost as popular as His Majesty and H.R.H. Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn: for while the King has remained an ultimate resort in time of crisis, sensitive to public opinion and accessible to individual petitioners, all three have devoted much of their lives to social and economic reform. The 'Royal Grandmother' dedicated herself to the improvement of medical care throughout the kingdom and to the protection of environmental resources, particularly forests. It is not surprising that her passing away on July 18, 1995, plunged the nation into mourning and induced the government to honour her with a traditional, royal cremation.

Royal persons are not cremated until many months after their death. Many details are given by Quaritch Wales and Dutch readers should be familiar with some of them from Cees Nooteboom's 1986 novel De Boeddha achter de schutting. The corpse is first placed in a sitting position inside an inner urn, made of silver, the palms joined in front of the face in a gesture of homage. The inner urn is placed in an octagonal golden outer urn, which is taken by the family to the large Dusit or 'Celestial' Hall in the Grand Palace in the course of a small procession 'with an absence of that display of modern militarism,' writes Quaritch Wales, 'which, however great its sociological value, always seems to strike a jarring note in every State Ceremony where it is present'. We should remember, however, that Asian funerals are, at least in part, joyous occasions: Thai cremations used to be a kind of carnivals redolent with entertainment, shadow plays, masked dances, fireworks and lots to eat and drink. Much of this has disappeared, possibly because Europeans frowned on these displays since they look upon death as an entirely solemn and mournful occasion.

About the outer urn that had already been prepared for King Phra Phutthayotfa (generally referred to as Rama I) during his lifetime (1734 -1809), the story goes that he so much liked its beauty and craftsmanship, that he ordered it to be placed in his bedroom. His consorts, considering it a bad omen and started to cry but the King declared that, if he could not admire its beauty from the outside while he was still alive, then how would it be possible for him to do so when he was inside?

The Funeral Rituals

The body of the Princess Mother was kept lying-in-state inside the urn in the Dusit Hall for a full seven months before the urn was taken outside in the early morning of March 10, 1996, the day of cremation. Plate 2 shows the inner urn placed outside on a platform still within the Palace Grounds. High palace officials stand in respectful attendance while a seven-tiered parasol is kept ready for the urn and two parasols for the Crown Prince and Crown Princess. On Plate 3, the outer urn has been rebuilt around the inner urn, the Crown Prince and Princess arrive and their parasols are unfolded. Plate 4 shows the urn being carried by palace bearers through the western gate of the Palace Grounds. Outside, it will turn left and circumambulate the Palace Grounds in anticlock-wise direction, the direction reserved for everything concerned with death. I shall refer to this first small procession, in which only the family and a few palace officials participate, as 'A'.

The procession moves very slowly, step by step, and the private palace ceremony is now turned into a larger public display by embedding it in the much larger second or Grand Procession that may be analysed from front to back as:

C1 - B1 - A - B2 - C2

because it contains not only the first procession 'A' but also a third procession:

B1 - A - B2

that will be detached from it later. In the second and third processions, the urn is preceded in 'B1' by the Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism, reading Buddhist scriptures in a chariot pulled by traditional bearers (Plate 5). This is followed by 'A' surrounding the Great Funeral Chariot of the urn (Plate 6), originally built like the Patriarch's chariot, around 1795 and completely restored in 1987 (the fantastic shapes of these chariots resemble the royal barges that are still on view elsewhere). The urn is followed in 'B2' by Court Brahmins who have loosened their hair knots (Plate 7). All sections are surrounded by traditional bearers of screens and banners, pullers, master pipers and drummers along with royal guards of infantry regiments, air force and naval academies, some of them playing modern military music.

Proceeding in anticlockwise direction, the second procession circles the Palace Ground and moves slowly in the direction of the Cremation Ground. When entering it from the north, the original procession, 'A,' detaches itself first and is subsequently joined by the Supreme Patriarch (in 'B1') and the Brahmans (in 'B2') together with other small suites of people. Within the Cremation Ground, this third procession circles the funeral pyre (Plate 1) inside which a sandalwood urn has been prepared with sticks of firewood piled up underneath it (Plate 8) anticlockwise. Inside the funeral pyre or cremation tower, the outer and inner urns are removed and the royal remains are placed in the sandalwood urn.

Flowers made of sandalwood are piled around the urn by senior officials and others who have been allowed inside to pay their last respects. When evening falls, the crowd disperses and the cremation is about to begin after the fire has been lit by Their Majesties the King and Queen. That is not the end of the ritual for it continues on the next day when the King separates the bones from the ashes which are placed each in a separate urn, deposited afterwards in separate places - but I shall leave that part of the ceremony (which has a Sanskrit name and Vedic overtones) for another occasion.

Scientific study of ritual

Not only funeral rites themselves but also their scientific study has turned out to be, as Gregory Schopen noted, a lively issue. There are, at least, three features. The first is historical and I will mention only one thing about it: the ceremonies show that the Thai royal cremation is neither Chinese (Buddho-)Taoist (still surprisingly unexplored), nor Buddhist, nor 'Hindu' (a term I place between quotation marks because it is often used to refer to the Thai 'Brahmin' contribution to the royal ceremonies). It combines features of varying provenance, but the cremation ritual is basically Southeast Asian. The second feature is anthropological and here it suffice to say, that two-stage burials are not confined to Thailand or Bali: they were or are not uncommon in other parts of Southeast Asia. This was known to Robert Hertz, a little-known, because short-lived, pupil of Durkheim and precursor of Lévi-Straussian structuralism, who published his findings in 1907 in the Année Sociologique with special reference to the Dayaks of Kalimantan.

Leaving aside religion at the moment, the Thai cremation shows that its ceremonial deferral cannot be explained in economic terms: the widespread belief that Balinese cremations are 'postponed' because it is cheaper is an error (first exposed by K.C.Crucq in his Bijdrage tot de kennis van het Balisch doodenritueel of 1928: 'de kosten der verbranding kunnen natuurlijk niet de reden zijn,' and further discussed in my Mantras between Fire and Water of 1995).

The third feature of the scientific study of ritual is analytical. But how can we analyse these ceremonies? I have suggested in Rules without Meaning (1990, paper 1993) and elsewhere that ritual is governed by syntactic rules and that the power of some of these rules lies in their recursiveness. A recursive rule is a rule that applies to itself. For example, a rule of the form: 'A * A B,' which states that 'A' has to be replaced by 'A B,' is recursive because the 'A' on the left recurs on the right and so the rule may be applied to that second 'A': the result is '(A B) B' or, with parentheses omitted: 'A B B'. That process may be repeated indefinitely. A particularly productive recursive rule is:

A >B A B,

which generates:

'B B A B B', 'B B B A B B B', etc.,
or in the form of a tree:








. . . . .

The following scheme should enable the reader to deduce how the Thai funerary ritual more than simply symbolize that (wo)man dies alone, it also exhibits the recursiveness of ritual:

Inner Urn


Outer Urn


1st procession:



2nd procession:

C1 - B1 - A - B2 - C2


3rd procession:

B1 - A - B2


Sandalwood Urn



is professor emeritus of philosophy and of South Asian languages, University of California at Berkeley.

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