The revered late king of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, viewed as semi-divine by the Thai people passed away on 13 October 2016. And naturally, his passing has shaken the entire nation to its core. He was the monarch that they grew up with. He was the only monarch they knew. He was not merely a father figure to the Thais; he was the father of the nation. He was also their father.
In a previous article, Remember Lee Kwan Yew: A Death Perspective, I discussed the inherent and intrinsic tensions between personal grief and performative grief. But in Thailand today, we see a conflation of personal and performative grief. The genuine expression of personal grief waded into performative grief in an instance. It was an authentic outpouring of sorrow at the loss of a monarch who was not only the father of the nation, but also their [second] father. It was both personal and national. As such, it has to be said that collective mourning in this instance was neither some form of self-indulgence, nor was it a scripted performance of sorrow. It was personal in a national way.
Grief takes on a communal form, and bonds with their much respected and revered father were further strengthened. In fact, the kingdom [nation-state] itself serves as that unprecedented arena for the articulation, and enfranchisement of death, in the many rituals and outpouring of grief we see not only during the mourning period ascribed by the state, but also in tattoos. Yes, you heard me right, tattoos.
A trend has seemingly emerged in Thailand where people are expressing their love and sorrow for the late King Bhumibol with tattoos on their bodies. Remembrance takes the form of a tattoo. Interestingly, the word “tattoo” takes its meaning from the Polynesian word tatau, meaning “to write”.
The flesh itself becomes a [meta]physical space that mimics their metaphysical experience of the dead as being neither here nor there but somehow everywhere yet nowhere in particular. The late king Bhumibol lives, given life by the blood that courses through the veins of each participant with an imprint. He became timeless. A private tattoo is thus also a public statement of remembrance. Death has been enfranchised through a personal tattoo.
The late king Bhumibol is physically dead, but he is very much alive. He’s flesh and blood, literally and metaphorically. He lives and the human body becomes that [national] canvas in which conversations and the reality of death are seen and discussed, and a subset of the [oft-emotional] process of the living attempting to ascribe meaning to the life of the deceased as they pause and confront their own challenges in present circumstances, their mortality included. The dead king has indeed survived his death. Long lives the King!