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Caring for the dead until water ebbs

Caring for the dead until water ebbs

Villagers in Prasat commune, Kandal province, help cover the coffin containing the body of a relative on a bamboo raft.

F

looding has affected not just the living, but also the dead. With no land available

on which they can cremate or bury their dead, bereaved families must store the bodies

until the floods recede.

Maneuvering his rowing boat towards a large Chkeng tree, 22-year-old Soeung Chon

has come to check on the body of his grandfather, who died late September. Heavy

rainfall has forced Chon's family to store the body in a coffin on a bamboo raft,

and until such time as the waters recede, it is Chon's responsibility to take care

of the body.

Chon climbs onto the raft and, placing both hands together with fingers pointing

upwards, apologizes to his grandfather for the intrusion.

"I am not scared of him like some people," he says, standing on the raft.

"You know, it is no trouble for us to take care of the dead - after all, they

are still our family."

Chon explains that the area has long had problems with flooding, and that this circumstance

means that storing bodies is an old tradition. The people of Prasat commune live

in floating villages and have always struggled to find land for cremation and burial.

His uncle, In Sar, agrees.

"This tradition goes back a very long way from the time of our ancestors,"

says Sar. "Our village has always struggled with flooding, so in the wet season

this is what we do."

Sar says that as many as ten villagers in his commune die each year. Not all the

bodies are placed in coffins to await the dry season, though: some are cremated on

a floating raft of banana wood at the pagoda.

In the past decade most bodies have been laid out on bamboo rafts or tied to the

upper branches of tall trees. Although the rich were able to afford good quality

coffins, the poor often had to make do with simply wrapping the corpse in cloth.

"We have learned through experience a better way to float our dead on the bamboo

rafts," says Sar. "We no longer wrap the bodies in material and lay them

unprotected on a raft - that often produced a bad smell. We do not want to antagonize

our neighbors with that, so we try as best we can."

Keeping the body safe until such time as a proper ceremony can be held is vital.

The body is placed in a sealed coffin which lies under a small roof. Sheets of clear

plastic prevent rainwater from getting inside the coffin.

Four wooden posts stand at each corner of the coffin and are lashed to the bamboo

raft. Four more posts anchor the raft, and have rings to allow it to rise and fall

with the water level.

Chiev Lay Hieng, 52, who lives in a neighboring village, says that the villages are

inundated with floods for all but three months of the year. It is only from February

to May that they are able to walk on the land, and it is then that all burials and

cremations take place.

"I think that 99 percent of the time, we float the dead while waiting for the

dry season to dig a grave. It has become part of the culture of our village,"

she says.

Lay Hieng's mother in-law, Yeay Kith, died two months ago, and her body is lying

in a coffin under a saddle of bamboo 50 meters from her front door. While the floodwaters

lapped near her front door, Lay Hieng spoke of her mother-in-law's last request.

A palm leaf shelter covering the body of Grandma Kith is sealed with plastic

to keep rain out.

She says that before her death, Kith regularly visited the graves of her relatives

in a small graveyard nearby. There she would keep the graves clean and respectable

and present offerings to their spirits. However, the lack of land convinced her that

burial was not the best choice.

"My mother in-law told me to cremate her body," she says. "She was

concerned that if we keep burying our dead, the next generation will have no land

to use as their own graves."

All the villagers are aware of the increasing value of land. The loss of trees, the

lack of available land and changing cultural perspectives are all contributing to

a change of the tradition.

Villagers say that a 10 square meter plot of land far from the village costs around

one chi of gold (about $35). That has compelled a change in local attitudes towards

cremation with fewer people willing to bury their late relatives, says Sar.

Lay Hieng says she will cremate her mother-in-law's body next February when the floodwaters

finally go down. Until then, her body will be taken care of as villagers have done

for decades: watched over and carefully tended, sealed in a floating coffin meters

from Lay Hieng's house.

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