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Going in style

Going in style

The latest Cambodian status symbol comes with a heavily-lacquered, hand-etched


Growing in popularity among the nouveau riche, Chinese-style headstones.

No longer content with the plywood crates and makeshift pyres

typical of Khmer cremations, an increasing number of the country's elite are

opting for Chinese-style burials.

"Rich people are telling their

children, 'When I die, I want to be buried,'" said Cheov Heang, who manages a

coffin shop on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard. "They like to take the Chinese style."

Many wealthy Cambodians aren't shy about imitating China - even in


"People see the Chinese are good in business, so they want to do

like them," said Im Sreng, owner of Li Seng Heng coffin shop on Kampuchea Krom


Sreng would know. Sino-Khmer himself, he's part of a coffin shop

dynasty. His father first opened a store in the late 1980s and since that time

the family has held a monopoly on the city's coffin shops.

With a

populace that generally favors cremation, sales have sometimes lagged, Sreng

said. But about four years ago, business started to pick up.

Wait outside the Cambodian Association Helping the Miserable Corpses.


2000, we've sold maybe 10 or 15 more coffins every year," he said. "In 1995, we

sold 150 for the year at my father's shop; in 2004, we sold 300."

As the

standard of living has shot up in recent years for some, more and more of

Sreng's clients tend to be Khmers. While a small number buy cheaper coffins for

cremation, most come to the shop for expensive burial caskets.


start at $200 and are all made by hand," Sreng said, walking through the rows of

heavy wooden coffins that fill his shop. Carvings of dragons bearing teeth and

claws, meant for male corpses, decorate the surfaces of Sreng's most expensive

items. The female companion pieces feature more serene depictions of birds and


"For burial coffins, we use only good, thick wood," he

explained, as two workers struggled to pry the lid off a dragon-themed casket.

At the foot and head of the box are painted Chinese characters, one that

means "long life" and the other, "good luck."

"At the ceremony with

family, they lay the coffin with the feet toward everyone, so the body can wish

them 'long life,'" Sreng said. "Then when they take the coffin through the

streets to be buried, the head side is at the back saying to everyone following

'good luck.'"

Love becomes a funeral


Though the wealthy have adopted some of these Chinese

burial customs, they are not found in traditional Khmer culture, said Khy

Sovanratana, a monk at Mongkulvan Pagoda. For the most part, cremation has a

long and entrenched history in Cambodia.

Before the introduction of

Theravada Buddhism around the 12th century, Cambodians did often bury their dead

or leave bodies in the jungle, where wild animals would generally tear and

mangle the corpses.

But Buddhist teaching instructed


"The Buddha led by his own example," Sovanratana said. "Before

he passed away, he asked that his body be cremated."

While ancient

teachings don't address the spiritual elements of the Buddha's request,

cremation served an earthly purpose.

"We have to remember that Buddhism

originated in India, a very crowded country," Sovan-ratana said. "When people

cremate, they save the land where the body would be buried."

In keeping

with the Buddhist belief in impermanence, "the body is not so important,"

Sovanratana added. "When we die, our body returns to its former compounds -

solid goes to earth, liquid goes to water, motion becomes wind, heat goes to


Despite the lack of divine instruction regarding the cremation

process, Cambodians have developed their own beliefs over time. While Buddhists

don't identify a fixed soul, Khmers think there are many different energies, or

praleung, that form human consciousness.

"If a body isn't cremated, the

praleung will be hovering around, looking after the bones and not taking on a

new birth," Sovanratana said. This isn't true, however, for children, whose

praleung are still pure and less attached to the body. For this reason,

Cambodians generally bury children younger than 10, he said.

But for

adults, burial is historically rare.

"It goes against Cambodian tradition

and belief," Sovan-ratana said.

Aid for the miserable


That doesn't seem to matter to Khmer Sinophiles.

"Rich Cambodians who choose burial are doing it more for style - it's

not any sort of concrete belief," Sovanratana said. "They copy and imitate the


Even though China has a large Buddhist population, ancient

Taoist and Confucian teachings encourage burial. Elaborate rituals govern the


But when Cambodians decide to bury family members, they often

perform only half of the Chinese customs, Heang said. "There are many

dedications and prayers to the body, and Cambodians only do some," he


More often, they adhere to the Chinese method of choosing a burial

date, Sreng said. Consulting a general Chinese calendar - updated every year -

Cambodians look with shop owners to decide which days and times will bring the

most luck to the deceased. Relatives then store the casket and body in their

house until that date.

Poorer customers generally don't adhere to any

Chinese customs, Sreng said. In addition to running his own shop, Sreng is the

director of the Cambodian Association Helping the Miserable Corpses.

Though most of his customers are wealthy, Sreng said he gets some

requests for coffins (both for burial and for cremation) from Cambodians who

cannot afford to pay. Using money from Chinese donors, the association supplies

such patrons with cheap caskets and burial plots outside Phnom Penh.


used to give people coffins directly," he said, "but the number of requests

increased, so I had to set up the association."

Despite the growing

number of buried Cambodians, Sreng admits most still prefer


"The majority right now stay with Cambodian ways," agreed

Sovanratana. "But with rich Cambodians, even for the dead it's fashionable to

follow the Chinese."


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