Um Phom first heard about cooking oil made from human flesh while shopping at O'Russei
market in mid-November.
Two vendors swapped tales about a Phnom Penh pagoda that collected the oil left from
human cremations, mixed it with traditional cooking oil and then sold it to unsuspecting
Stunned, he said nothing.
He certainly didn't say that it was his temple they were talking about. He absolutely
didn't say that he was the man in charge of cremations.
Phom still doesn't know how the story started, but sitting in the creation courtyard
at Wat Preah Put, he says there is definitely no truth to the tale.
"Right now I'm searching for the person who started this [rumor]," said
Phom, 70, who has worked at Wat Preah Put, or Buddha Temple, for over a decade.
Some say the grisly yarn first surfaced in Kandal market, others in O'Russei. Whatever
the story's origin, it has since run in local newspapers and on national television,
establishing itself as urban myth and permeating market conversations.
"Some customers don't dare to buy [oil], but some still buy because they think
it's just a rumor," said Teav Bontheaun, who has sold plastic bags of cloudy
pig fat oil and food pastes at O'Russei market since it opened in 1992.
A liter of pure pig fat oil sells for about 2,900 riel, cheaper than a liter of vegetable
oil, which costs about 4,200 riel.
Bontheaun, like several other oil vendors who spoke to the Post, says his business
has not been effected, and he is confident common sense will prevail.
"No, I don't worry about that because the rumor is not reasonable and customers
know it's not true," he said. "During the burning the relatives stay nearby,
so how can the crematorium staff take the oil?"
Many consumers dismissed the human oil rumor, saying it was reminiscent of the green
bean saga that swept Phnom Penh last year and prompted a rush on the vegetable that
was said to help protect against SARS.
But Heng Channy, a vendor from Kandal Market, said some of his customers had already
stopped buying ready-made oil and now purchased pig fat to fry for themselves at
Phom, the Wat Preah Put crematorium caretaker who in some of the more inventive versions
of the rumor has already been arrested by police, was keen to square the record.
"If you don't believe, I want to show you everything," Phom said.
He pulled a heavy metal tray set on rollers from underneath one of the two cremating
furnaces where a body was in the final stages of burning atop a wood pyre. On the
flat tray lay a heap of ashes and a small puddle of liquid.
"It's oil from the body, but I put the tray there for taking the ash and bones,
not for taking the oil," Phom explained.
Certainly, any attempt to mix the dark, ash-filled liquid with clear oil would be
immediately apparent. By the end of a two-hour burning, Phom says the moisture is
gone and all that remains is several kilograms of ash and bone fragments.
James Fullerton, CEO of Fullerton Funeral Home in the US state of Iowa and a trustee
at the National Foundation of Mortuary Care, has never heard of "recoverable"
human oil, and said that given the heat of the cremation fire, the story was highly
"The oil (fat) is consumed in the cremation process and actually aids [burning]
... much like whale blubber was used in old lamps," Fullerton said by email.
Wat Preah Put cremates between 30 and 50 bodies in an average month, including unclaimed
corpses brought to the pagoda by the police.
As head of committee at the temple, Pen Sophat worries that the rumor may effect
the wat's reputation, and thinks it may be linked to a previous dispute with neighbors.
"This rumor must have a reason ... two months ago there was a complaint from
the people around the wat that the burning of bodies effected their living,"
Sophat told the neighbors that the pagoda, reconstructed in 1990 with financial support
from Senate President Chea Sim, had existed longer than surrounding houses and businesses,
giving it priority.
Once "educated", the wat's neighbors went quiet, Sophat said, but he ordered
future cremations to be conducted only between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. and 5
p.m. to avoid releasing smoke during meal times.
He is also trying to find the source of the story, and says he would make a formal
complaint if he knew who started spreading the rumor.
Sophat said businesspeople who sell pork products had expressed anger toward the
temple for the potential damage the story could have on their business.
But while it is probably Phom's reputation which most needs salvaging, his primary
concern is for the good name of his temple and his religion.
"Please publish the truth, because this rumor effects the wat, the [oil selling]
business and Buddhism," Phom said.