Review: Choreographing the End of Life in Thailand

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 28, 2021

The Spirit Ambulance: Choreographing the End of Life in Thailand. California Series in Public Anthropology 49. By Scott Stonington. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2020, xvi + 187 pages, ISBN 978-0-520-34389-4 (hardback), $85.00/978-0-520-34390-0 (paperback), $29.95/ 978-0-520-97523-1 (e-book), $29.95.

Reviewed by Sean Hillman

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One thought on “Review: Choreographing the End of Life in Thailand”

  1. Thank you, Sean, for this detailed review. Allow me to suggest another ethnography covering similar material, also in Northern Thailand: Rituals of Care by Felicity Aulino. These ethnographies cover important areas too little covered to date, as far as I know. One shortcoming in work on Thailand, though I haven’t yet read Spirit Ambulance, is assuming too much of canonical Theravada Buddhist doctrine and I’d like to clarify a few things from the review.

    First: Thewa and Thewada are indeed the (Romanized) Thai spellings of deva and devata and carry much the same meaning as their Indic origins. “Angels” is a disastrous, if not rare, translation.

    On removing life support: My experience in NE Thailand is that when the doctors say that there is no hope, the family chooses to remove life support and take the patient home to die. On my mother-in-law: “We’ll do all we can.” “Prepare yourselves.” “Do you want her to die in hospital or at home?”

    Kamlang chai: While “mind-heart energy” isn’t bad as a literal word-for-word translation, the term mostly just means encouragement, not prāna. Think of the etymology of “en-courage.”

    My sense of the practice avoiding mentioning death or serious disease, to the extent of not telling the patient that they are terminally ill (though it’s often obvious from the behavior of relatives and friends) is fear of evoking death itself, i.e., as a black invocation, incantation.

    Winyan is indeed from Pāli viññana, which there means consciousness or discrimination, but in Thai it means soul, spirit, ghost. After death, one’s winyan hovers about the area for a number of days; people fear winyans. I once worked on an international conference that had to do with spirituality. “Spiritual” was translated to Thai as chit winyan (Thai has no word for “spiritual”) and people thought that was spooky–a conference about ghosts.

    Related to that, the anatta doctrine is basically unknown; I’ve been told by a Thai, in English, that Buddhists have to believe in the soul because of reincarnation. Monks refer to themselves as atama, the Thai pronunciation of Sanskrit atman, “self.” But indeed atta/ atman is used in the traditional literature as a reflexive first and third person pronoun, without metaphysical implications.

    Thai Buddhism is an amalgamation of indigenous animism, Indian Brahmanism, and Buddhism from various sources in which any tensions have long sense dissolved. As it is, there is very little awareness of canonical doctrine, including among monks and asking for exploration of tensions between doctrine and Thai belief and practice doesn’t make much sense without prior work that hasn’t been done on Thai Buddhism itself.

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