For the past six years, a Taiwanese NGO has been offering unusual aid – building facilities for villages too poor to effectively cremate their dead
While many NGOs in the Kingdom focus on improving poor Cambodians’ lives, one organisation is trying to improve their deaths.
The Field Relief Agency, a humanitarian organisation founded in 1995 by a Taiwanese flight attendant turned philanthropist named Yang Wei-lin, constructs crematoriums in rural communities.
According to Wei-lin, the need was grimly obvious.
“People just burned bodies uncovered in the field. Maybe [they would burn a body] in a pagoda, but they would just put it on the ground,” she said, adding that villagers would often burn the corpses on a bed of banana tree trunks.
“Sometimes, when they burn a body, it jumps because of the heat and scares people. And sometimes dogs would come and bite at the remains. It caused me a lot of pain to watch.”
In floating communities living on the Tonle Sap, villagers often burned the bodies in tall trees that drooped over the water, said Wei-lin.
“Sometimes the body wouldn’t burn completely and fall into the lake,” she said.
Lacking money to take their dead to a proper morgue, villagers were forced to go through with the faulty cremations, which cost about $20 in expenses for the burning materials such as wood and butane.
The haphazard cremations bothered Wei-lin on multiple levels.
Not only did it seem traumatic for family members who had to sit through their loved ones’ gruesome immolations, she also found the burnings disrespectful to the deceased.
Moreover, with the smoky vapours swirling so closely around the villagers and with burnt remains ending up in communal water sources or being eaten by animals, the cremations’ effects on community health also seemed questionable.
In the past, Wei-lin said, most pagodas had cremation furnaces, but they were often too small and didn’t always work.
The demand for higher quality crematoriums was there, she said, but village funds in the post-war period typically went towards more pressing projects, such as schools, houses, hospitals and food.
“In the past, we also had one but it was pretty old and there was no roof. It was hard to cremate when it was raining,” said Luor Hun, 51, whose Phnom Toch village in Banteay Meanchey province received an FRA crematorium in 2009. “It’s been much easier since we got the new one.”
For some villagers, the imperfect immolations nagged on a more cosmic level.
After building a crematorium in one village, a group of old men thanked Wei-lin, admitting that they had long worried about their funeral ceremonies.
The new crematorium, instead of acting as a looming reminder of their impending deaths, brought the seniors a certain degree of spiritual relief.
“They felt happy because they believed that the crematorium [would give] them blessings. They could be accepted by the Buddha [in the afterlife],” she said.
Death in Cambodia, where about 95 per cent of the population identifies as Buddhist, is serious business.
“Those whose deaths have not been addressed properly through ritual are regarded as not having been ‘laid to rest’ ... [They] are thought to be experiencing badly the suffering of dukkha [anguish] in the world beyond,” wrote John Clifford Holt, a professor of religion at Bowdoin College who studies Buddhist traditions, in a 2012 paper titled "Caring for the Dead Ritually in Cambodia".
“[They] are the types of people who become lingering ghosts ... the suffering beings who roam the margins of the world.”
The fear of ghosts is one reason why villagers in Thmor Bang village, Banteay Meanchey province, are happy to have their new FRA-built crematorium.
“From next month on, we will have a new rule. We will announce to the villagers [doing cremations at home] to bring their corpses to the crematorium so that they do not make ghosts. The corpse needs to be cremated in the proper place,” said Sou Kim, a village council member, referring to a place that had been blessed by monks.
The ornate crematoriums, with chimneys that tower over 4 metres, long, covered decks and roofs that feature golden spires and eaves, double as pagodas.
They are blessed by the local monastic authorities, who work closely in their construction, as spiritual places.
The furnace runs on a mixture of charcoal, wood and petrol, Wei-lin said.
While FRA, which is funded fully by individual Taiwanese donors, provides the money — $10,000 a crematorium — the villagers do most of the building.
It was easy, Wei-lin said, to tap their network for villages in need of a proper crematorium. None of them had one.
“In the beginning, we got in contact with monks near Poipet, but the day after [we finished construction], the countryside monks found out we had this project and they started contacting me by themselves,” said Wei-lin, adding that now nearly every village around Poipet had an FRA crematorium.
According to Chea Nun, chief administrator of the crematorium project, in the six years since they began, 110 crematoriums had been built, in which more than 2,000 bodies had been burned, mostly in the northwest near the group’s office in Poipet.
FRA is currently in the process of expanding the project into Siem Reap and Battambang, where they recently completed two new crematoriums.
“I am so satisfied with our crematorium from the NGO,” said Pachem Simaveasey Pokchamreun, head monk at the Steung Bot pagoda in Poipet.
“I think the dead deserve a better place to be cremated. They need to leave with their dignity.”