A Thai Lantern Funeral for my Grandma
EACH FALL THAILAND celebrates Yi Peng, the iconic floating lanterns festival held on the first full moon in the second month according to the Lanna lunar calendar. Last year I watched the sky light up with masses of Lanna-style khom loi lanterns, each carrying a wish, a plea for good luck, or a farewell to old habits or some lingering sorrow. I was among the masses finding space to release my own burning lantern bearing words from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and I marveled as the lantern leapt from my hands to follow the others in a fiery river meandering through the sky.
This was a magical week in my memory. Little did I know it was one of the last moments of my grandma’s life, or that I wouldn’t be able to fly home in time for her funeral.
“If I have to say goodbye to my grandma it isn’t going to be in this stupid dark alley,” I said to my husband, Austin, as I scoffed at the graffiti and barbed wire fences. He was helping me find a more private location for a lantern send-off than the tourist-packed streets of Chiang Mai’s Old City. Now the crowds were overbearing, the night sky black, empty, and ominous.
“Alright,” he said, walking back toward the bustling street and the open-air restaurants blaring western pop songs.
“Did you bring the lighter?” I said, sharper than intended. My misplaced anger and tears were right below the surface.
I watched Austin’s silhouette pull out a lighter without a word. I sighed, felt the thin tissue of the khom loi lantern between my fingers, and followed him back to the main road.
I had received news of my grandma’s death three days earlier. After checking last-minute flight prices from Thailand to the U.S., I knew I couldn’t afford a las-minute ticket to attend the funeral in Utah with the rest of my family. This whole Thai lantern send-off thing was my brilliant idea when I felt up to acknowledging my grandma’s passing. I felt numb and shocked day one. On day two I oozed hot tears until my eyes swelled shut. By day three I was drained of all emotion but anger.
“Let’s try up here,” Austin said as he turned onto another narrow side street. A dog growled in the dark.
“Nope. Not here.”
“Okay,” he said, surrendering. “I’ll follow you.”
I’ve always been terrible at goodbyes for a traveler. I avoid goodbye parties (especially for myself) because I end up seeing the same person three times later in the bathroom, at the gas station, or when I return to their house once I realize I left my phone on their kitchen table. By this time we have already performed the awkward side hug and see-you-probably-never exchange. I guess I don’t know how to deal with closure when it doesn’t feel like clear closure.
Like with death.
“Let’s try this Buddhist temple,” I said to Austin as we approached a black structure roofed in gold tiles with swirling dragons hanging off the corners. “Seems private enough.”
We walked through the gate and scanned the temple grounds. A single lamp post stood guard in the silence. “We are alone,” Austin concluded. I nodded in acknowledgement and pulled out the khom loi, spreading out the corners and unfolding the creases while Austin broke up the yellow wick so it would light.
The lantern was prepped a minute later. Austin reached in his pocket for the lighter.
“Wait—“, I said, scrambling for the marker in my backpack. “We have to write on it first.”
During the Yi Peng celebration in Thailand, people release lanterns into the sky for many reasons, but a mere week earlier the collective mass of lanterns seemed so majestic—ripe with beauty, happiness, and human possibility. I now wondered how many of those lanterns carried the name of someone they too once loved.
I found the marker and asked Austin to hold up the sides of the khom loi.
As I felt the marker in my hand I suddenly didn’t know what to say. “I suck at this.”
Austin put a comforting arm around my shoulder while I stared at my feet. He believed in an afterlife. I wasn’t so sure.
“Well, what do you want to say to her?”
I thought for a minute. I wish I could apologize for not giving you a better farewell—for not attending your funeral, for not being around while you suffered, and for not being able to say “I know I’ll see you again someday” like I know you could. I wish I could tell you goodbyes never get easier for me—in every country I visit I feel it as the plane moves down the runway because I can’t promise I will be back but I keep moving forward because I have to and don’t look back. I wish I could ask if you got my postcard from Machu Picchu before you slipped away or if you still believe this life was “wonderful,” an adjective you sprinkled in every sentence for as long as I can remember. You were always there as long as I can remember…
I took the lid off the marker and pressed the tip against the thin paper: “For my grandma, who was always so full of wonder. You will be loved and missed.”
Austin said a few words I never heard. I felt my throat constrict. My eyes burned.
“Ready?” Austin said, getting the lighter ready.
Am I? “Okay.”
The wick ignited in a perfect circle. We held the bottom of the lantern as the heat rose and pushed against the walls of the khom loi, orange light illuminating the words scrawled in my bad handwriting. Soon the lantern tugged against our hands, ready to escape. I felt the heat of the lantern on my palms.
“It’s time to let go,” Austin said in my ear.
So I let go.
We watched the khom loi follow the wind into the western part of the sky and pass over the roof of the temple. The Thai consider it good luck to watch a lantern until it disappears, but I grew restless as we stood in silence and watched the lone flame grow smaller and smaller against the indigo sky. I gestured to Austin to follow me as I walked out the gate and back onto the busy sidewalks, glancing up at the sky every so often as I walked.