Books of secrets – Bangkok Post
Pintima Lertsomboon, librarian at Thammasat University, with cremation books from the university’s collection. Photos by Brandon Harder & Bangkok Post
Pintima Lertsomboon, a librarian at Thammasat University, remembered trying to work on Oct 14 in order to soothe the bereavement brought by news of the death of His Majesty King Bhumibol. Her task as librarian usually offers her peace of mind. She has been tasked to separate the cremation books out of 10,000 rare books in the library, putting them in their own category.
Usually, Pintima is detached about death. But that day outside the university, swathes of mourners gathered along the road around Sanam Luang to pay respect to the royal cortège from Siriraj Hospital to the Grand Palace. In the afternoon, she flipped through funeral books and found a recipe for stir-fried bean sprouts, a favourite dish of King Bhumibol and other royal family members. The volume was given on June 3, 1970, for the cremation of a mother, the late Sanit Poocharoenyode.
“I looked at the recipe as tears gradually poured from my eyes. The cremation book had recipes compiled from women’s magazines in the past. There was a recipe for pad tua ngorksavoy [stir-fried bean sprouts] and other recipes of the Crown Prince, Crown Princess and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. The recipe text describes how King Bhumibol loved to eat simple vegetable dishes,” Pintima — with her reddish puffy eyes — told Life.
That melancholic serendipity is one of the surprises and heartfelt discoveries Pintima often found in her work — putting cremation books in a separate collection, providing librarian call numbers and writing brief annotations. The job may sound repetitive, but Pintima also got to read secret historical records from the cremation books of royal court officials. Cremation tomes of soldiers and politicians offer insights of intimate connection.
Thammasat University started the cremation section in 2013. The library has received rare books from the public, temples and institutes — many of them funeral books belonging to people from all walks of life: officials, elites, royals and common citizens. The university also digitalises hundreds of thousands of cremation books in the library at Wat Bowon Niwet — known as the first cremation-book archive of Thailand.
“We do this project because we’re a public library and these cremation books are a cultural heritage. People can also find stories about their family’s past,” said Pintima.
The library is proud of its diverse collection — from rare and valuable leatherbound heavy books given at royal funerals to simple tomes made of A4 photocopied pages stapled together.
“No matter who these books belonged to — be they funerals of royal family members, billionaires or janitors — they are alike in one thing: they are a testament of love to those who have passed away.”
And for historians, there is much more to cremation books than a mere memoir of love. To them, they also offer snapshots of social transformation.
“Most of the volumes from the reign of King Rama V are Buddhist chants and verses, while those released in the reign of King Rama VI are literature. Interesting enough, the content of cremation books during the reign of King Rama VII are not notable, because the country had undergone political and social transformation.”
The current popularity of cremation books is due to the health and moral content, Dhamma, and Buddhist chants and verses. Most of the cremation books have recipes. “This rising popularity shows Thais are entering an ageing society, and Thais are always in pursuit of peace of mind. Yet one thing hardly changes: Thais have always been foodies,” she said.
Cremation books have been more than unique and idiosyncratic gifts in cremation rites. Historians and researchers go to them for information. Chefs and housewives look to them for ancient recipes. For example, Australian chef David Thompson, of Nahm, reportedly studied Thai cuisine from recipes in cremation books. Rare-book sellers have made a lot of money out of them too, as antique tomes from the cremation of prominent figures can sell for five- or six-digit figures. The price of this genre is high enough that sellers often go to cremations of the famous to get free books, later to be sold at inflated prices.
Cremation books have gotten the attention of overseas academic institutes. Cornell University, Northern Illinois University, the National Library of Australia and Kyoto University reportedly all have valuable collections. For foreign scholars, cremation books are unique cultural artefacts, as they only exist in Thailand.
It’s a tradition for Thais to provide souvenirs during cremations. King Rama V initiated the trend of cremation books in 1881, when the great monarch decided to print 10,000 copies of Buddhist chants and verses for the double funeral of two women — his wife Queen Sunanda Kumariratana and the couple’s daughter — who drowned when their boat overturned in the Chao Phraya River.
The royal family that ruled at the time used state publishing facilities to give cremation books to the public, according to Pirasri Povatong, cremation-book expert and collector. Without free cremation books, public access to books and useful content might have been much less.
“National libraries, in the old days, assumed the duties of publishing houses, curating, editing and printing good content and giving it to the society. In the three decades since cremation books became prevalent in Thai society, around a million have been printed and distributed,” said Pirasri, who is a lecturer on architecture at Chulalongkorn University.
Treasure trove of knowledge, mirror on Thai society or testament of love — cremation books can be many things, depending on what one is looking for. For Pintima, she loves the myriad complex feelings derived from reading the pages of cremation books.
“Most cremation books tell about accolades and achievements of the dead person. It’s human nature to think of the good things people did when they pass away. Cremation books remind us that everyone does good things in life.”
Yet there are a lot of people who still hold certain biases toward the genre.
“People often relate this genre of book to death and bereavement. But for me, I prefer to call it the book of love, because all cremation books are a labour of love from family members to their loved ones who have passed away.”
Cremation books from Thammasat University’s collection. Brandon Harder/Bangkok Post