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.
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."
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
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."
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."
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.
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."