I included a link and caption to this rare digitized footage of the 1926 funeral of Thai King Vajiravudh (aka Rama VI) to accompany a pair of travel advisory stories I wrote for the South China Morning Post related to King Bhumibol’s funeral rites in October 2017. The actual cremation took place on the evening of October 26, preceded by a half-dozen processions that day and by five rehearsals in the days before that. (The gist of my stories: Don’t even think that you can get close enough on October 25-27 to see anything in the vicinity of the funerary structures.)
The video caption I wrote was edited down a lot, so I don’t think readers could draw much from it. Early on in the video, that’s Vajiravudh’s brother, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), presiding over—by pulling a specially made rope—the raising of the Royal Six-Tiered Umbrella to a spire atop the multi-story wood crematorium. That ceremony occurs a few days before the actual cremation; this year it took place October 18, with Thailand’s new king, Vajiralongkorn, residing.
The experts at the Thai Film Archive believe the scraps of film, found in 1981, were probably leftovers from a long-lost newsreel that would have been shown in movie theaters. The later parts of this footage are probably from the cremation day. You can see the large urn with the king’s body being transferred from the grounds of the Royal Palace. Actually, there were two urns, Professor Tongthong Chandransu, an expert on royal funeral ceremonies, told me. An outer gold urn encased a silver urn that contained the king’s body. The silver urn was then removed from the gold one at the time of cremation.
In the film, that urn probably was being transferred from the Grand Palace to the chariot that conveyed it to the crematorium on Sanam Luang. It was on this same great field, north of the Grand Palace and fronting Thammasat University, where Bhumibol’s ceremonies took place as well. An urn was also used 67 years ago for the funeral of Bhumibol’s brother, Ananda (Rama VIII), but a western style wooden coffin was used for Bhumibol (Rama IX).
I was so surprised to the see women in sleeveless dresses in the film, ascending and descending the stairs as they paid final respects. Surely they must have been foreign women—wives of diplomats and such? As a general rule, Thai women rarely wear sleeveless garments even today. The dress code for this year’s ceremonies was quite explicit: black and grey colors, and covered arms, shoulders and legs for men and women alike.
Full brothers Vajiravudh and Prajadhipok were half-brothers of Bhumibol’s father, Mahidol, a physician who was never king. That bit of information was deleted in the editing process, so the caption in the Post says the two kings featured in this film were Bhumibol’s “half-uncles.” I suppose technically that’s right, but sounds strange. They were also Mahidol’s full cousins, since their mothers were sisters but I suppose that would be Too Much Information.