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Monday, December 15, 1997 Published at 17:14 GMT


Last rites at mass cremation in Thailand
image: [ Just some of the remains to be cremated ]
Just some of the remains to be cremated

A mass cremation is under way in Thailand in which the remains of more than 21,000 people are being burnt. The bodies are those of people killed in road accidents or other fatal incidents and left unclaimed over the past 10 years.

A voluntary group, the Phor Tek Tung foundation, one of several charities in Thailand which clear up after road accidents, has been burying such remains in a cemetery in Bangkok.

But this is on the site of a new road scheme, so the bodies have been exhumed by hundreds of volunteers and transported to a heavy-duty furnace outside the city. Reports speak of a pall of acrid smoke rising over the building. The BBC's correspondent Enver Solomon reports from Bangkok:

[ image: The last rites]
The last rites
Standing beside dozens of baskets wrapped in yellow cloth containing thousands of bones a group of monks chants holy mantras at a cemetery just outside the Thai capital, Bangkok.

Alongside them are women dressed in black, burning rolls of silver and gold paper, signifying the wealth to be used by the dead in the afterlife.

This special Buddhist ceremony has been taking place every day since Wednesday, December 10, in the sacred build-up to what is expected to be the world's largest ever cremation, involving the remains of more than 21,000 people.

Members of the public helped to clean the masses of bones earlier this month in preparation for the ceremony. Now they have gathered to pay their respects and sprinkle perfumed water before the cremation that begins on Monday.

[ image: Holy oil sprinkled on the bones]
Holy oil sprinkled on the bones
The 21,437 bodies were gathered by a voluntary organisation, the Phor Tek Thung Foundation, which provides final rites and a resting place for unclaimed bodies.

It usually helps victims from road accidents or dying homeless people.

But these bones are from bodies that have already been buried.

[ image: The new site]
The new site
The foundation is being forced to move its burial ground because it is on the site of a new road project. As a result it has decided to cremate all the bodies from the cemetery.

Unclaimed or unidentified dead were pain-stakingly exhumed from the overcrowded burial site in Bangkok, where the charity has been burying its dead for more than 80 years.

The cremation is expected to take at least seven days, with about 300 bodies being burnt each day. The foundation claims it will be the largest ever cremation the world has witnessed, and thousands of people are expected to attend.

Honourable treatment of the dead is considered very important in Buddhist culture, which is the predominant religion in Thailand.

Foundation members work day and night dashing around Bangkok in souped-up vans collecting bodies from the city's streets. By tuning in their car radios to police broadcasts, they know who has dropped dead from disease, suicide, shootings, knifings, road accidents and other fatal events.

If the dead bodies are not claimed by their families the foundation will provide a resting place for them. Usually they bury the bodies.

Because social service provision is poorly funded in Thailand, it is often left to religious charities, like the Phor Tek Thung Foundation, to provide assistance.

Buddhist Thai-Chinese businessmen provide the financial backing - such generosity is believed to bring the donor spiritual merit in later life.

The money also helps provide burial for bodies which would otherwise be uncared for and not disposed of according to proper religious rites.

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