A Death In The Family

We’ve had a death in the family so English Teacher Online dedicates this week’s editorial to Juan Wongdee, my father-in-law.

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Juan Wongdee, 80, of Baan Suan, Nakhon Srithammarat, passed away on Tuesday the 11th of April 2017 at home, peacefully with his family around him. He is survived by his wife, seven children, nine grandchildren, family and friends.

He had suffered with dementia for several years and I think Juan chose this time to go, two days before the annual Songkran New Year festival in Thailand. His daughter, who lives in Bangkok, had come down for the holidays and she was lucky enough to hold Juan’s head in her arms as he took his final breath. There’s some comfort in being there at the end, and as a family we have all been drawing strength from each other at this difficult time.

I am truly amazed at how quickly everyone was able to come together on the family farm which Juan had cleared with his own bare hands over 50 years ago.

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Juan was born in 1937 and moved to Southern Thailand after the land reforms in the 1960s. He staked out a small 10-rai plot of land and together with his wife Pa Wongdee, raised seven children.

Following the King’s edict for sustainable living, they worked with the land and held it sacred. Ant hills two meters high, just one example of Juan’s belief that humans and nature belong to a single dependent community.

Some of Juan’s children now have families of their own and as I look out around this five-acre rubber forest, I can see several of his children’s houses, one of which I built with his daughter Pom.

Three marquees have been erected to accommodate the hundreds of people who are attending the five-day wake in honour of Juan. Last night, four orange robed monks presided over a ceremony to lay Juan in his coffin.

In keeping with family traditions we all poured water over Juan’s right hand which was holding beautiful white jasmine flowers. Everyone wanted to help place his body carefully into the ornate silver coffin and then raised it high on a ceremonial pedestal. I was surprised at how naturally the young children reacted to seeing their grandfather’s still body, my eight-year old niece taking part in the rituals.

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White string was placed in the coffin with Juan. The string trailed around his marquee looping through each monks’ chair until it finally attached to the Buddha image which denoted Juan’s faith. The monks held the string in their right hands as they began chanting.

Although I didn’t understand the language, I was hypnotized by the melodic rhythm as we all sat and entered into prayer. I recognized Juan’s name within the chants and understood that this act of remembrance was the beginning of Juan’s journey to his final resting place.

I was reminded that while the language of this occasion was different to my own, the faith, the ceremony and the custom were in many ways similar. The respect being shown was extremely humbling and made me aware of my own mortality. I was able to speak with one of the monks (in broken Thai) and felt an empathy that connects me to the entire human race.

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My Thai uncle reacted by saying, “That was a lovely ceremony,” a very polite and correct way of speaking on such an occasion.

Juan’s passing had bought our family together and many people asked me what religion I belonged to. They wanted to know how Western people lay their relatives to rest, did we bury them or cremate them as Juan would be?

We spoke about English (rather than in English) and discussed the importance of English – as an international language of business, diplomacy, for living in peace. Parents and grandparents expressed hope that their children would learn English, opening up new opportunities to provide security for their families.

For five days we feasted, drank and listened to stories of Juan’s life. Juan was a hard-working man who attended to his rubber trees seven days a week. He would wake up at 2am each night, put on his miner’s light and pick up his knife. Working through the darkness of his rubber forest, he carefully cut a small groove in each tree. He turned over the half coconut shell that he used to catch the valuable white sap. When he had cut 500 trees he would go back to the house and eat breakfast, before returning to collect the thick rubber juice in a bucket a few hours later.

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Juan was an expert in permaculture without ever having read a book on the subject. Using a prah, a 30 cm curved blade atop a meter-long wooden handle, he would clear his path and allow the foliage to mulch. He dug shallow fish ponds under the cover of his trees, raising rice and fish together. He planted fruit trees, grew vegetables and herbs closer to his house. He built a duck-house so the family had a constant supply of eggs. He instinctively knew and learnt by watching other farmers around him, by trial and error, he designed a way of life that many in the West would envy.

I had never been to a such a long wake before. Each day the guests returned to pay their respects to Juan. It was truly exhausting for my wife and her siblings who served them constantly. We’ve had little time to mourn. The wake has kept us busy and it seems that laughter has defeated our tears – for now.

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With so many guests, the food had to be cooked in the largest woks I’ve ever seen. Thai curries, soups and barbecued meats served at all times of the day – as the people kept coming. The monks returned each morning and evening, blessing the food and chanting in remembrance of Juan.

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On the final evening, all the tables were full as over 200 people came in a show of solidarity for Juan’s family. One of his sons, Ruk, had shaved his head and taken the robes of a novice monk. He was unable to drink that night and went to sleep in the temple. Eventually, we all went to sleep in preparation for the funeral.

On Monday the 17th of April 2017, just after mid-day, a line of more than 50 cars, trucks and bikes made the slow trip to the local temple close to Juan’s home. We stopped at a junction and a monk got out to pray. We gathered around him as he lit a candle and said a prayer. We did this so Juan would know where we were going and how to find his way. Mum also left coins along our route so Juan’s spirit could follow us to the temple.

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Ten monks, including Ruk, led the hypnotic funeral chants. Robes and alms were offered to them – and then it was time to say good-bye to Juan.

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We carried his coffin to the funeral pyre, and his friends placed flowers in the coffin. Close family members placed candles, incense and flowers next to nearby trees.

We all said our own personal prayers as the flame was lit and the door was closed.

After his cremation, we scattered the ashes in the temple grounds and planted a coconut tree with Juan.

May he rest in peace.

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