According to Thai tradition, when royalty or a high-ranking aristocrat passes, his or her body will be placed in an urn in a sitting position. This long-running tradition dates back to the ancient Ayutthaya kingdom, several hundred years before our time. The urn containing the body is then put inside a bigger, more lavish outer urn that indicates the social ranking of the person who passed: the higher his or her ranking, the more elaborate the urn. So when it comes to kings, the supreme golden urn (Phra Ghote Thong Yai) is used. In later years, however, to adhere to international etiquette, the body was placed in a coffin and the urn enshrined alongside it to define the departed’s status. The funeral of King Bhumibol will also follow this modern practice. The golden urn is now used as a symbol of royal ranking, which ranges from kings, queens, princes and princesses and other royalty.
At the final stage of the royal cremation ceremony, the golden urn will be removed and will be replaced with a sandalwood urn (Phra Kote Chan) of the same size. The sandalwood is an auspicious wood that has long been used for royal funerals, and is prized for its aromatic fragrance that helps mask any undesirable smells when the body is being burned. For this two-meter-plus-tall sandalwood urn, more than 100 of the country’s best craftsmen spent eight months assembling more than 10,000 delicate pieces of sandalwood—so delicate many of which are only two-millimeters thick—by hand. These craftsmen also built a sandalwood coffin using another 30,000 pieces of sandalwood.
The Office of Traditional Arts injected many auspicious designs to the royal sandalwood urn and the coffin of King Bhumibol—132 garudas, each made of 53 pieces of wood around the coffin, and 64 angels around the urn to accompany the Narayana-like king back to heaven.