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Coffins, crematoria and class

Coffins, crematoria and class


Burying one's deceased relatives is increasingly popular in the Kingdom, as wealthy middle-class Cambodians seek to emulate Chinese habits in hopes of material gain

Heng Chivoan

A worker at Phnom Penh’s Wat Ounalom, near Phsar Kandal, paints a coffin.


Tat Nhem, 62, morgue director at the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital, said his mortuary gets one or two bodies a month, as most Khmer families take corpses home for funeral preparation. Most bodies that end up at the mortuary are unidentified.

IT is a calm, sunny day at the Central Market, and people are relaxed as the weekend approaches, bargaining happily over last-minute purchases.  Death is the last thing on anyone's mind. But when asked if they have thought about their death preferences, many people's opinions were surprisingly firm.

"I want to be buried," said a young Khmer moto taxi driver confidently. "Then my family will have somewhere to come and mourn me forever. A special place where I will always be remembered."

His answer is not unusual, as the Cambodian way of death is beginning  to change, and hundreds of years of cremation are giving way to a preference for  burials.

Chinese and Vietnamese  people have traditionally buried their dead, and this method is starting to permeate Cambodian death practices, as some middle and upper class families are beginning to view burial as a mark of prestige and success.

Since the days of the ancient Khmer empire, the majority of Cambodians have used cremation as an efficient and cheap way to deal with corpses.

But Pheng Sytha, dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, said this was not always the case.

"Burying corpses is in the Khmer Mon tradition, before Cambodia was influenced by Indian and Chinese cultures," he said. "Cambodian people started to burn corpses after the influence of Brahmanism in the first century."

Buddhists now account for 90 percent of Cambodia's population, and Buddhist practices teach that cremation allows the soul to exit the body freely, preparing it for reincarnation in its next life.


At present 80 percent of buried corpses in Cambodia are Chinese, two percent Vietnamese and the rest Cambodian. But these figures are shifting, as Cambodians lean towards the Chinese example.
"More and more people are tending to marry Chinese people or Khmer people with Chinese ancestry as they believe that they will have a good business, and that their children will be clever," said Thy Nareoun, director of the sociology department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

"This respect extends to Chinese burial practices," he added.

Im Sreng, director of the Cambodian Association Helping the Miserable Corpses, which assists families who cannot afford to bury their relatives, said the increase in preference for burials is becoming an expensive practice for his charitable organisation.

"We have to spend a lot of money if the corpse is buried. We need land for graveyards and money for petrol and transportation," he said.

Hung Mea, a coffin maker and funeral director, said most of his clients who choose to bury their loved ones are following the Chinese example and are usually wealthy.

"Khmer people see that the Chinese  are very prosperous in Cambodia. They think that this success may be due in part to their burial practices, and so they are copying their example."

A show of status

The wealth of a family is also an important factor in deciding how a corpse will be sent off. The wealthier the family, the more likely they are to prefer to bury their dead.

Real Leap, 64, a priest at a Buddhist pagoda in town, has noticed the trend.

"Mostly poor or lower-class families cremate their dead. Rich people like to show off their wealth by buying a piece of land for the grave. That also means that they will always have a place to go and remember their loved ones, to take flowers to the grave, and fruit and food once a year."

Approximately six out of 10 corpses that come to be cremated are the victims of traffic accidents, and the pagoda cremates about 40 people a month, added Real Leap. 

Many people who come to the pagoda are too poor to pay the 150,000 riels cremation fee for their loved ones, and in cases such as these the priests hold a smaller, cheaper ceremony. Sometimes wealthy families will pay for coffins for poor families (or donate three or four coffins to the pagoda), or a charity will help them out with expenses, he said.

Real Leap said traditional death practices still predominate in Cambodia, and are carried out in much the same way as they have for hundreds of years.

Three days after a death, the corpse is taken to a Buddhist pagoda for cremation.  Family and friends in attendance wear white, and those close to the deceased often shave their heads. The number of monks in attendance depends on the wealth of the family, and can vary from between two and five.

A big part of the ceremony is the outpouring of grief and sadness as the relatives of the deceased beg forgiveness for the mistakes of the deceased and their mistakes against the deceased.

Two hours after the ceremony, the ashes and bones are picked up by the relatives and taken to their hometown. A memorial or remembrance ceremony is held seven days after the cremation, and again after 100 days.

The new generation

Im Sinoun, a fourth-year mathematics student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, laughs at the increase in burials and shakes her head at the suggestion of marrying for good business luck or clever kids.

"I don't think this is a good idea," she said. "If you want to make good business, you have to try hard. Your children's cleverness depends on how they are nurtured. When I marry, I do not mind if my husband is Chinese or Khmer.

" When I die," she continued, "I would like to be cremated. It is easy and you spend less money. If people continue burying the dead, our land will be full of graves and we will lack land for agriculture and other development."


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