I found an old diary that’s reminded me of many experiences in Burma. Among the notes, I found pointers to three enduring stories not yet retold in these journals.
Burma Story: One
I attended just one Burmese funeral in the two years I worked in Rangoon. It came at a time that I was very stressed. My immediate concern was the future of the forty people that depended on the continuing existence of the office that I ran. My colleagues’s concerns had been quite different and I knew little of them.
My colleague, MS, invited me to attend his father’s cremation and I went. He knew I couldn’t travel alone because, as a foreigner in his land, my company required me to have a driver both for convenience and security. So I fronted up to the start of the funeral in a small suburban village of bamboo huts with straw walls. I came in a massive American Dodge Ramcharger 4X4 that dwarfed homes and found a size rival only among the buses parked around the house.
I was the only foreigner and was instantly made the guest of honour. The diplomacy of the occasion entailed taking tea together with MS and his father. We sat either side of the emaciated corpse whose hands were neatly folded on his chest, filled circles of yellowish thanaka covering his deeply hollowed cheeks. MS quietly retold stories of his widowed father while his wife brought us green tea and a tray of swei kyi, sticky traditional semolina cakes. Regrettably, I had become a displacement activity for MS.
Having sat with MS for about 20 minutes, we departed the village in a convoy and I was stunned to see four buses fill up with people who long knew the grieving family with whom I had just taken tiffin on first acquaintance. But MS told my driver to follow the hearse and the family, in third place so to speak. We drove slowly to the crematorium where we queued for almost an hour behind several other grieving families awaiting cremation services.
Our turn came and as chance would have it, we stopped directly across from the entrance to the crematorium building. Only the pall bearers were allowed out and then only to carry the coffin into the building. Two huge black doors parted and the four pall bearers and coffin were backlit by the fires of hell ahead of them.
They walked in and the doors swung theatrically shut. Just a few moments later, the crudely made doors wobbled open. MS emerged leading the other three bearers out of the building, To this point he had been calm and composed, prepared and accepting of the death. MS, the only child, told me he had been holding his father’s hand at the moment of death, guiding him towards reincarnation. That journey had started when MS relocated his ailing father to his own home so that he and his wife could tend to the octogenarian widower. Yes sir, it had been a very long illness.
I felt that reincarnation was now in doubt. MS was howling in anguish and grief and right behind him was the reason he was so upset. The self service nature of the cremation had taken a grotesque twist. His father’s coffin was standing proud of the oven flames, feet up, the rattan coffin flaming like a bizarre Olympic torch. I could see, scattered among the orange red flames, the blackened remnants of the lives of others, their death boxes being licked by tongues of white flame.
Charnel house rather than civic crematorium, there was a tall chimney venting very black smoke into the monsoon clouded sky. The carbon ash of the many people drifted south and east, back towards Rangoon.
We drove away, back to Rangoon, under their diffuse pall. It was the first time I wondered if the spirits of the dead might actually be above and looking down upon us.