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Coffins from the Cambodia Association Helping the Miserable Corpses at Wat Pul Puth. Scott Howes

In death and debt: grieving families, unpaid bills

The blue sign outside the coffin shop is oblique – but blunt: Cambodia Association Helping the Miserable Corpses.

“It’s very simple,” says coffin shop owner Em Srey, sitting inside, at a small desk in his busy showroom on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard. “Because we are followers of Buddha, we feel it is most important to help poor people.

Local families nearby that can’t afford the coffin – if we find out they are really in need, we help [provide] the coffin and the land.”

More miserable than the corpses, are the ones left behind. On top of their loss, the sudden costs of a funeral ceremony, food for guests, adornments, a wood coffin, cremation or – for Chinese-Khmers - the burial plot and headstone set families back upwards of $500. For those struggling with the incremental costs of living, the costs of death are dealt in one fell swoop, and can leave a debt that takes years to repay.

“[Miserable Corpses] is easy to understand – it sounds simple. The Association is for anyone who doesn’t have money to buy a coffin,” Srey says of the unusual English translation of the non-profit organisation, of which he is the director.

Behind him are rows of high, shiny rounded coffins, varnished a deep yellow and decorated with florid carvings. For those who can’t afford a coffin at all, let along the $2000 price tag of the more elaborate vessels, a plainer, unadorned version is donated by Miserable Corpses.

“We couldn’t afford to do the same as other families”: Penh Mom gazes at a picture of her and her husband Savoeun, who passed away recently
“We couldn’t afford to do the same as other families”: Penh Mom gazes at a picture of her and her husband Savoeun, who passed away recently. Scott Howes

Srey’s father began the coffin and headstone business after 1979, but ten years ago - faced with poverty-stricken clients anxious to bury their loved ones in the Chinese-Khmer tradition - he formed the association to provide the coffin part, at least, and send the deceased off in dignity. Since then the charitable arm of the business has almost overtaken that of the retail. Three hundred coffins have been given away since 2006 and more than 100 buried at little or no cost in the association’s cemetery in Kampong Spieu’s Samrong Tong district, a two hectare piece of land 30 kilometres from the city.

“Every month we help give at least 15 coffins to poor families who come from around the country,” says You Sokchung, a supervisor at the association. Another 10 or 20 coffins are sold to middle-class or rich families, he adds.

Membership of a Chinese association is the traditional way to a Chinese style burial, where lifetime contributions are made towards a cemetery plot. At Helping the Miserable Corpses’ cemetery however, rich and poor alike lie side by side. Land and monuments can cost between $650 all the way up to $20,000, from a modest granite headstone to a large tiered monument.

To prove their need, the association requires the bereaved to provide a certificate signed by a local commune chief, Sokchung explains, pulling out a manila folder of such letters, stamped and thumb printed.

Earlier this year, Penh Mom was in need. Her husband of thirty years, Sin Savoeun, began to complain that the growth in his stomach was more painful. The 60-year-old garment worker borrowed money from relatives to pay her husband’s medical expenses, and by the time he died eight weeks later, was hundreds of dollars in debt.

Penh Mom, 60, wanted to send her husband off in dignity
Penh Mom, 60, wanted to send her husband off in dignity. Scott Howes

Sitting on the bare tiled room of her concrete Tuol Sambo house, facing a wall displaying a picture of her late husband, as well as laminated pictures of the King and Queen and her grandchildren, Mom wipes back tears as she recalls the anguish of arranging his funeral.

“We couldn’t afford to do the same as other families. I had nothing to make a funeral for him. I borrowed some from relatives to put it on. While he was sick we borrowed almost $600 for treatment and when he died we couldn’t borrow any more.

I was given $30 from the Buddhist Institute and the commune chief gave me $25, I still owe $280 for the funeral itself.”

Mom and her daughter and grandchildren live in Tuol Sambo, the resettlement site for evictees from Borei Keila and other developments.

“He was my second husband, we married when I was 30 and he was 40 [Life] wasn’t so difficult, because we could earn money – not that much – but our situation was OK.

“His family was Chinese Khmer and so we buried him in his homeland. A lot of people came and gave us a gift. If someone else had a problem, we would the same.”

Mom’s neighbor Horm Oun, a 46-year-old widow, shares the same sentiments. The community, many of whose family members are HIV-positive, donate towards funerals. Monks from the pagoda are invited, somewhat in the expectation that they will also contribute.

“Almost all of them fundraise money if someone dies. They help each other with 1000 or 2000 riel.”

When her husband died of an AIDS-related illness two years ago, Oun accepted money for the ceremony and food, and took his body to the pagoda on a tuk tuk, where it was cremated simply, with little ceremony, for free.

“I had nothing to spend for the funeral of my husband. All the money came from donations, from monks and a foreign photographer [who was shooting here]. I borrowed from my relatives – altogether it was $300 and I spent at least $500. I couldn’t afford it so I borrowed it and have to pay it off every month – I’m still paying it off.”

Funerals and weddings, of course, are common she says, but most in the community are unprepared for them financially. With her eldest children in their twenties, a wedding in her family seems an impossible expense.

“I felt lonely [when my husband died]. I had a problem: [shortly after the funeral] it was time for the electricity and water bill and I couldn’t afford it, [so] I told the children to collect rubbish. People here [in Tuol Sambo] are mostly motodops or tuk tuk drivers, some are garment workers, some run small shops...most of them live hand to mouth and simply can’t save money.”

Widow Horm Oun relied on help from her Tuol Sambo neighbours
Widow Horm Oun relied on help from her Tuol Sambo neighbours. Scott Howes

A funeral without ceremony or frills has no spiritual or karmic consequences, says Oeun Sam Art, the personal assistant to the Great Supreme Patriarch of the Kingdom of Cambodia, the head of the clergy in Cambodia.

“In the past, the ceremony was the one thing [where] we would ask people to contemplate that the body is not permanent. It decays, ages – so we should not have any attachment to the physical self. Now the ceremony is to dedicate good merit to the person who passed away. Most people think about the second thing. They don’t consider death – that they too will face it.”

If there is one Cambodian Buddhist tradition that endures above others, it is that of community, says Sam Art. The rituals around death see people providing food, gifts, flowers and even coffins to the deceased’s family.

In Thmey village, Prek Dambang commune, 61-year-old carpenter Nou Nal is also the village coffin maker. In the shady workspace under his house, he sands and smoothes a simple wood coffin for the local pagoda. The coffin is not for anyone in particular just yet, but is part of a stockpile Nal makes with the funding of a businessman from the town. Working alone, it takes him up to four days to construct a solid, polished rectangular casket. The businessman, Ly Hai Tong, originally from Thmey, donates 10 to 20 coffins a year to the pagoda for families who can’t afford them.

“We don’t want a reward we just want to help,” Nal says. “Twenty to thirty-five per cent of people here cannot afford coffins.”

Nal’s coffins cost about $35 to make, his more elaborate $180. If there is no coffin, the body is rolled up in a woven matt. A dragon-like gold and green casket cover is stored above the straw bed of the family’s stable, to cover the plainer coffins for the funeral ceremony, before it is incinerated.

“One year there were about 30 coffins,” recalls Tong’s brother, Touch Chhe Ly, who still lives in Thmey village and who drops by to visit Nal.

“[The funeral is funded] from charity from the neighbours. They also give food for the funerals, so they are helped with everything,” he says.

Nal, who follows in his father’s footsteps, also carves the trunks of supple banana palms with decorative patterns for funeral altars.

He says working closely with death among a close community has not troubled him.

“I see the cycle of life so I feel that everybody in the world feels the same way,” adds Nal.

“I see that we are human beings…some are poor, when we are born we have nothing, when we die we have nothing.”

In the countryside, most funerals have a safety net of sorts, agrees Men Soeun, a monk who is deputy house chief at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum – which until recently carried out regular cremations.

“In the countryside they co-operate with each other - people collect money. Phnom Penh is different because there’s no land to cremate or bury the body.”

Although burial is largely unregulated in Cambodia, with land ownership seemingly the only prerequisite, in Phnom Penh cremation can be a trickier affair. Cremations at Wat Botum, Wat Lanka and Wat Ounalom were asked to stop after the Ministry of Environment conducted an inventory of the pollutants released. However, the directive is reserved for the low-ranking.

“The suggestion from the City Hall is that we’re not allowed. Before we held cremations, but it was indoors – City Hall did not permit it close to the rivers,” Soeun says.

“[Now] laypeople are taken to the other pagodas. High-ranking people are permitted to be cremated here.”

It costs around $25 for a cremation, he says. What do the poor do when faced with that cost?

“Poor people get funds from rich [people] to be [buried] out of Phnom Penh. Other people donate money for the body to be taken out of the city…”

Sam Art says the brutal disregard for burial rites and ceremony during the Khmer Rouge regime deeply affects people’s feelings about burials and cremations.

“The Khmer Rouge didn’t change practices but [tried] to destroy all kinds of beliefs and faith…[They] didn’t allow funeral celebrations but [people] in their hearts celebrated the ceremony.

“During Pol Pot, the Buddhist monks disappeared. But after the regime fell the Buddhism came back like a bomb: people were very keen to have ceremonies, to hold celebrations.”

In the living room of a neighbour’s house, Horm Oun, pauses before explaining what she does with others in her situation.

“If I have a problem, people help out. I help too – it depends on how much you have and how much you want to give,” she says. “People can probably save $20 altogether…if we have to spend it on a wedding, a funeral…there’s not much we can do.”

Additional reporting by Thor Sina and Khouth Sophak Chakrya.

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