The story of Cambodia can be narrated through the lives of its kings, whose deaths arrive with as much spectacle and emotion as their ascensions to the throne.
And so it is today.
After the morning’s procession completes its loop around the capital and finishes just north of the Royal Palace, officials will place King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s coffin in a pyramidal spire at the centre of an ornate crematorium.
It will sit there for three days, until fire consumes the remains at dusk on Monday, February 4, to the booms of a 101-gun artillery salute.
What onlookers won’t see at the funeral is the meticulous planning that went on behind the scenes, a non-stop effort that took months.
It began almost immediately. Sihanouk’s body hadn’t even left Beijing, where he died on October 15 at the age of 89, when senior officials convened at the Royal Palace.
They discussed transportation back to Phnom Penh from China, and they appointed a special Royal Funeral Committee, which met for the first time about a week later in the riverside Chaktomuk Conference Hall.
In collaboration with the government committee responsible for organising festivals, the group of royals, political-party leaders, religious officials and ministers launched into the task of mapping out logistics for the intense period of mourning and remembrance that was about to begin.
Most of the funeral committee’s work in the ensuing months focused on designing the four-day cremation ceremony that begins today. Far more than a simple municipal affair of blocking off the right roads and ensuring public safety, the task required vast amounts of research to stay as faithful as possible to Royal Palace tradition and Cambodian culture.
“There were many jobs to do at the committee, many meetings organised for the practice of the procession, and we continued to work more after the practice to find out if any loopholes existed and what ways we could improve,” Nhek Bun Chhay, a member of the sub-committee in charge of religious aspects, said in a recent interview.
“Participants needed to be well-trained. It was a hard job and tiring, but we had to do our best to adhere to the symbolic traditions of the monarchy.”
Organisers looked at archival photographs stored at the National Museum. They unearthed first-hand testimonials written by observers of the 1960 and 1928 royal cremations. During their research, most would have seen the picture of a young Sihanouk holding the urn of his father, King Suramarit, during the cremation in 1960, and a video of the procession in which elephants carrying court performers lumbered along the city’s main roads.
“Everyone just sat down and read the written documents and videos,” Bun Chhay said. “Also, there were several officials who are still surviving from the previous ceremony, so those individuals could explain.”
The extravagant ceremony is a combination of basic ancient rituals common throughout Southeast Asia and royal funeral practices, drawn from the era when Cambodia’s leaders moved the royal capital from Oudong to Phnom Penh in 1866. Contemporary visitors to Oudong can still see several royal tombs.
The key thing to remember while watching today, said Friends of Khmer Culture representative Siyonn Sophearith, who has studied Cambodian funeral practices, is the presentation.
“For the king, it’s just more elaborate. The idea is to do whatever you can to send him off to the better world,” he said. “Human beings are very sceptical of what will happen to the deceased, because we don’t know; it only happens once.”
Look at the numbers, and you start to get an idea of what to expect. In addition to the more than one million mourners expected to turn out, 5,000 people will play an active part in an 11-part procession throughout the city. Male members of the royal family, who have shaved their heads in mourning, will be joined by ministers, court officers, judges, police, soldiers, Buddhist monks, ethnic and religious minorities, and representatives from Vietnam and China.
The vast numbers, diverse delegations and chosen cremation site have been a feature of the past four royal funerals. The most recent was in 1960, with King Suramarit, Sihanouk’s father; King Monivong was cremated in 1941; King Sisowath in 1928, and, in 1906, King Norodom. The ceremonies were performed outside of Phnom Penh before 1900.
“Every part of the ritual and ceremony will be identical – not just similar – to past cremations,” said Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former aide to Sihanouk.
“[Members of] the National Committee for Organising National and International Festivals, as far as they are concerned, have watched the cremations and have gone to the documents to arrange everything.”
But there will be some small departures from the past, Bun Chhay said. Previous crematoriums have been constructed out of wood, for instance, not the sturdy steel of the current structure. Previous crematoriums have also been dismantled, while this one will eventually be open to tourists as part of the Phnom Penh landscape. There were elephants and horses in the 1960s; today’s ceremony includes cars and motorcycles.
Moreover, Sihanouk broke from custom in deciding that he did not want his body placed in an urn before cremation, like previous kings.
“He did not like this,” said his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh. “He wanted to be in the coffin, he was willing to be in the coffin. We have to follow his last testament.”
In general, however, contemporary practice mirrors recent and ancient tradition, starting with the post-mortem name given to the king, a practice also in place more than 1,000 years ago during the Angkorian period. After death, Norodom Sihanouk became Barom Ratana Kot, which translates roughly to “Supreme Jewel of the Higher Realm”.
Sihanouk’s cremation, like those that came before it, is taking place north of the Royal Palace, a symbolic geography that turns a placid park in front of the National Museum into a spiritual centre, known as “Mount Meru”, a sacred mountain in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmology.
“It means that the dead is transferred from the human world to the god world, to the Mount Meru,” said Ang Choulean, an ethnologist at the Royal University of Fine Arts who studies religious belief.
He added that the northerly placement of the crematorium represents upward ascension to the next world. Few royal structures in Cambodian history have been built without taking this directional relationship into account.
In religious texts, Mount Meru is described as being more than a million kilometres in height, while around it the sun, stars and planets circumambulate every day, according to Kenyon College religious studies professor Royal Rhodes.
“Temple architecture more generally also reproduces symbolic representations of the sacred mountain,” Rhodes said in an email sent from Gambier, Ohio, where the college is located.
Choulean, the university ethnologist, pointed out that there are other geographical relationships important to the ceremony. Chief among them, the placement of the head during the cremation.
“[Chief mourners], they gather the bones from cremation and they put the head toward the west, and they ask themselves, is this the right direction? And then they put the head to the north, is this the right direction? But when they put the head to the east, they say yes, this is the right direction. The idea is that you orient to the right direction of reincarnation, and from now on, the dead do not belong to our world. And the dead person is supposed to be reincarnated, because the sun rises in the east.”
These traditions stretch at least as far back as the late 12th or early 13th century, based on imagery etched into Bayon temple in Siem Reap province. Researchers believe the carving depicts a crematorium that Angkorian kings passed through – a rush of fire on their way to the afterlife, where they lived among the gods.
Before cremation, however, there was often a waiting period, which academics have termed the “double funeral” – so called because the body is buried first and then exhumed for cremation after a period of time that varies from case to case.
Following Sihanouk’s death, his body lay in state for about three-and-a-half months before the start of today’s procession. Past kings went through the same stages, though some for longer than others. King Norodom died in 1904 but wasn’t cremated until two years later.
“The principle is that the body of the dead have to go through different steps, because it is believed that our body is composed of four elements: earth, water, air, fire,” Choulean said. “Even though the body of the king does not go through the burial, it has two steps.”
“When you bury a body, you leave it to be destroyed, decomposed by two elements only – by the earth and the water. So the death comes already through two elements, and the cremation is the role of the two other components – fire and air – because without air, you cannot make fire.”
The last king to be cremated outside of Phnom Penh was Ang Duong, a writer and politician who ruled in the pre-Phnom Penh capital of Oudong, about 40 kilometres northeast of the city. Today, a stupa there marks the memory of the man who made a controversial decision to negotiate with the French in exchange for protection from Cambodia’s neighbours. The deal, which came to fruition in 1863, led to 90 years of colonisation.
Forty years later, in 1904, King Norodom died, and the first crematorium was built on a patch of grass outside what is now the National Museum. Three more went up in the 20th century.
Historian Milton Osborne, who was an official with the Australian Embassy when Suramarit was cremated in 1960, attended a viewing ceremony of the deceased king with other members of the diplomatic corp. He was also present at the cremation, and wondered if the grandeur of that ceremony would live on today.
“There were very large numbers of people who followed King Suramarit’s burial urn, which had great platoons of women with shaven heads and a large number of elephants . . . maybe half a dozen,” he said.
Following tradition and the passing of the throne, Sihanouk lit the vessel holding Suramarit’s remains. On Monday at 6pm, three days after the procession, Sihanouk’s son, King Norodom Sihamoni, and Sinanouk’s wife, Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk, will do the same. Royal astrologists will then blow conch-shell trumpets as the artillery salute sounds, fireworks rise into the sky, and an orchestra of traditional Khmer pinpeat music, a staple of temple and royal ceremonies, strikes up a song.
Later in the evening, more than 400 prisoners are expected to be pardoned. During the next few days, the king and queen will scatter some of Sihanouk’s ashes in the Mekong River, and keep some in a diamond urn at the palace, in the company of the remains of previous kings.