By: Nathan Calies and Chris Roundy
On May 19, 2011, we went to an AIDS Hospice that I believe was called Chao Khun Phra Udom Prachatorn, located in Wat Pra Baht Nampoo, Lopburi. The clinic was located at the base of some mountains. It was a beautiful area that was well kept, had a good vibe, especially since it was for end-stage AIDS victims, and was an area for teaching. Han and Peter tried to prepare us for what we were about to see, but by our surprise, parts of the tour were not nearly as sad or touching as some of us expected.
Rather than showing pictures of the fallen victims, I will describe the setting. It was a very nice looking building devoted only to some of the people who have passed away. These people agreed to have their bodies on display at this museum in hopes to gain some good Karma. In the past, each body had a description of their life, how they contracted HIV/AIDS, and a picture of them before they got sick. I (Nathan) have been to many memorials for people who have died from war and disease and it has been very sad. But when walking into this memorial and only seeing the bodies with their private parts covered up, no descriptions, and no pictures, the memorial lost most meaning for me.
If any of you have ever been to museums like this, you know that you are truly touched when you can relate to the victims story. When there is no story and only a body, then it’s just a body. Don’t get me wrong, seeing the bodies is still sad, but when a museum that use to have descriptions of the dead bodies no longer has them, the focus loses its meaning. I talked with our professor (Han) who is quite knowledgeable about this topic and he believed that the museum had to cover up the bodies and take down the descriptions because of specific complaints, most likely from Westerners.
As most of you know, Westerners view death as something to avoid. We have many laws in place to keep the patient privacy in tact and by having bodies exposed like this would break many of our laws. Westerners use to volunteer at this clinic which is meant for peace and beauty for people with end-stage AIDS as they take their last breaths, but their views got in the way. There are no longer volunteers from the West. We believe it is this population that complained about the dignity and privacy of the people who VOLUNTEERED to have their bodies in the museum. Like I stated above, these volunteers wanted some good Karma before they passed away and only hoped that if people, specifically young children saw what AIDS did to them and read about how they contracted HIV, it would change their lives. These people who complained about the museum need a serious reality check.
First, this is Thailand, not the United States or Europe. Rules and laws are different over here. Sex and death are seen with open eyes in Thailand compared to the closed doors in the West. If the people want to show their bodies for teaching purposes, who says they have the right to stop them, especially people from a different country, culture, and belief system? Second, this is the 21st century and it’s about time that people start realizing death is out there, sex happens, and diseases occur. Everyone has the right to voice their opinion, but when you take the beliefs away from victims who donated their bodies in the mindset of teaching and inspiring, one has crossed the line.
Walking into the museum and seeing bodies exposed was a bit weird, but that’s all it was. In my opinion, the museum has lost, if not all, most of its meaning. I was not touched, I did not feel much emotion, and I was truly disappointed that they were covered up and the descriptions did not exist. I hope this Hospice realizes what this change has done and they will try to make it the way it uses to be. This is a place for learning, where schools bring their children to see what this horrible disease can do. Without connections, memories will be short lived. Children and adults viewing these bodies will definitely have some emotions, but the connection might not exist, and it is this connection that will keep people from sharing needles, using IV drugs, having unprotected sex, and having their partners get tested. This clinic is an amazing establishment that has done nothing but good for these people. Let’s just hope that people start minding their own business and start realizing what the bigger picture is. There are so many closed minded people out there that only believe their way is the right way. I just hope these people will one day realize there are many ways to live, many beliefs to believe, and Western views are not always right.
Chris here, and it’s important to note another factor influencing these individuals’ decision to allow their body to be displayed. In the Buddhist faith, a person is not reincarnated until their body is cremated. By putting off cremation of their body, these people are putting off their reincarnation into their next life. They believe that the education of others regarding the HIV virus and its effects is more important than their continuance in the cycle of life. I cannot think of anything more selfless.
What struck me (Chris) the most was another portion of the hospice, a statue of Buddha surrounded by bags and boxes of ashes. Other than the individuals in the museum/memorial portion of the hospice, when someone dies at the hospice, their body is cremated and their ashes sent to loved ones. Some ashes, however, are sent back to the hospice, refused. Some (not all) of these dejected ashes are stored and displayed around the Buddha, one of the saddest things I have ever seen in my life.
A major reason why the hospice was started in the first place is that earlier in the HIV epidemic, people infected with HIV were abandoned by their family, literally left in the street to die. The hospice provides a safe, comfortable place for HIV-affected persons to pass in peace. But when they do, some families still refuse to take them in. Seeing the hundreds and thousands of boxes and bags of ashes piled was a sad and sobering reminder that even after over 20 years, people continue to harshly judge those affected with the HIV virus. The taboo surrounding the HIV virus contributes to the lack of available treatment and prevention programs, such as the abolition of the clean needle exchange program in Salt Lake City. The sooner that everyone is able to accept HIV-affected persons, and see someone who is ill and needs treatment rather than someone who did bad things and got what they had coming to them, the better we will be able to address the biggest pandemic in human history.