Lao Buddhists honor monk with elaborate funeral

By Bob Smietana, THE TENNESSEAN, June 29, 2009

Spiritual leader's work revered

Nashville, TN (USA) -- More than 600 of Nashville's Lao Buddhists gathered on Sunday to pay their final respects to a beloved spiritual leader and one of the Southeast's leading Buddhist monks.

The service marked the end of more than 30 days of mourning for the Venerable Somdy Soumano Soupanya. He was abbot of the Wat Lao Buddhapathip in southwest Nashville a temple he founded in early 1990s. He would see it grow from humble beginnings to a thriving center of faith and culture with plans to build another temple.

"The temple that is here began as a small house look at it now," said Nom Christine Inthachith, Soupanya's niece. "Look at how far it has come."

Because he was considered a high priest among Lao Buddhists, known well in Nashville and beyond, Soupanya was given an elaborate funeral. He lay in state at the temple for two days, and then was put in a place of honor, in a field next to the temple.

An elaborate four-part wood cover, painted a dark red and decorated with intricate carvings, was placed over the coffin, which was then placed under a huge tent, with white and yellow bunting. At the top of the tent was a golden umbrella, and the corners were decorated in dragon tails.

The funeral was a combination of Buddhist and Laotian traditions, said Banthone Ott Luangrath.

"The umbrella is a sign of honor," he said. "Because Laos is a hot country, there's always someone carrying an umbrella for an important person."

Dozens of volunteers worked for weeks to pull the funeral arrangements together.

Sa Sisaleumsak and Uiraphonh Dewaratanawanich built the cover for the monk's coffin. Sisaleumsak, who works as an artist for Disney, designed the cover and flew in from Florida every weekend over the last month to oversee construction.

Dozens of volunteers carved decorative accents for the cover.

"Sometimes we had a few too many," Dewaratanawanich said.

He and other volunteers put the finishing touches on the cover at 3 a.m. Sunday, a few hours before the services began.

"We are grateful that we could honor him," Sisaleumsak said.