BANGKOK — The funeral for Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej is an elaborate, intricately planned event lasting five days. The ceremonies and processions are steeped in Buddhism, tradition and history and defined by modern and personal touches. Some facts about the events:


PAST AND PRESENT

The crematorium — a representation of mystical Mount Meru, where gods reside according to Buddhist and Hindu legends — is likely to be the most impressively ornate structure most Thais will see built in their country in their lifetimes. But some of their ancestors may have seen grander edifices, such as the 102.75-meter (337-foot) -high crematorium for King Borommakot of the Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1759.

However, 19th century monarch King Chulalongkorn, known for his attempts to modernize the country, thought it was time to downsize.

“It is a waste of human labor and money. Doing such a thing now would not suit changes in the country. It neither entails longer honor nor benefits anyone. This in turn causes trouble for others,” Chulalongkorn has been quoted saying.


URN VS. COFFIN

By tradition, the bodies of deceased members of the royal family have been kept upright, in an elaborate urn. But Bhumibol and his late mother and sister, who all spent much of their early lives in the West, opted for their remains to be put in a coffin, with the urn still placed next to it for traditional devotional purposes.

When Bhumibol lay in state at the Grand Palace for the year after his death, the empty urn was placed on its pedestal, with the coffin behind it. Bhumibol’s coffin is made of aged teakwood, plated with pure gold and lined with ivory colored silk.

A new gold-plated royal urn, etched with traditional royal patterns was fashioned in 2000 to replace one made in 1900 during the reign of Chulalongkorn. It was first used for the 2008 funeral ceremonies of the king’s sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana, and is the one being used for Bhumibol’s funeral rituals.

The practice of keeping the body in the urn has not fallen into complete disuse. The remains of Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda, the only child of King Vajiravudh, were kept in an urn for her funeral in 2012.


THE LATE KING’S DOGS

Sculptures of King Bhumibol’s favorite dogs have place of pride among the 500 depictions of animals, gods and mythical creatures adorning the 50-meter (164-foot) -high crematorium. The 70-centimeter (2.2-foot) -tall painted statues of Tongdaeng and Jo Cho is on the top tier, near the bier for the royal coffin.

Tongdaeng, a stray adopted by the king in 1998, gained fame when the king penned a short book in 2002, “The Story of Tongdaeng,” widely seen as parable for how the monarch thought Thai people should continue to hew to tradition in the globalized world of the 21st century.

“Tongdaeng is a respectful dog with proper manners; she is humble and knows protocol,” the king wrote. “She would always sit lower than the king; even when he pulls her up to embrace her, Tongdaeng would lower herself down on the floor, her ears in a respectful drooping position, as if she would say, ‘I don’t dare.'”


SCULPTOR’S GAFFE

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time to sculptor Pitak Chalermlao, who was preparing a 2-meter (6.5-foot) -tall statue of the Garuda, a half-bird-half-human creature in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, for the crematorium.

To show that King Bhumibol was a man of his time, moving the country forward along with contemporary technology, he carved Apple and Google logos on each of the Garuda’s wings and a Facebook logo on its belt buckle.

Proud of his idea, he posted photos of his work on Facebook, naturally. Then the slings and arrows started coming, first from netizens who found the concept offensive, or at least inappropriate.

The cremation project’s overseer, the government’s Fine Arts Department, was just as unhappy, and ordered the social media logos excised. It said they failed to properly honor tradition and the spirit of the occasion.

The abashed sculptor apologized and said he only meant to show that Bhumibol was a man with modern as well as traditional knowledge.


SANDALWOOD AND PAPER

Soon after Bhumibol’s death, the Royal Palace sent out an official team, including a Brahmin astrologer, to select sandalwood trees from which appropriate wood could be used for the royal coffin and for the cremation pyre. Four of 19 varieties of the tree were chosen from the traditional venue at Kui Buri National Park in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, blessed for cutting down and transported to Bangkok in a solemn procession.

Hindu and Buddhist funeral ceremonies give great importance to the fragrant wood, which is the preferred fuel for cremations.

At the king’s cremation, “flowers” made of sandalwood will be piled around the urn by senior officials and other privileged persons invited to the inner sanctum of the ceremony.

A mass campaign encouraged the public to show royal devotion by making their own flowers out of paper and depositing them at any of the hundreds of designated locations such as temples and schools and pop-up booths in shopping malls and hospitals. Bangkok’s city government said it expected to produce 3 million of the flowers.

Public participation does not end there. Replica representations of the Sanam Luang crematorium have been erected in all of the country’s 76 provinces, where people can bring their devotional creations.

Author photo
GRANT PECK
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