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"Smarter Aid, not more Aid!"

The parting of the dearly-departed.

The main part of the Buddhist Funeral with Monks


Foreword: Mr Erik W Davis has published a book "Deathpower: Imagining Religion in Contemporary Cambodia” that featured in this weekend’s Phnom Penh Post.  It describes local funeral arrangements and prompted me to write up my observations.  Mr Davis no doubt elaborates on these.
The man next door imbibed too much rice wine, probably a cocktail with brake fluid, had a massive stroke and soon succumbed to his fate in the small hours of the morning. The wife and neighbours had dragged his heaving body to the local hospital, somehow balanced on a motor-cycle.

Once arriving there with their meagre money, that they had borrowed in expectation that it would be needed, the first job was to extract that from them.  Only after it was safely-pocketed would the medical attendant, who may or may not have been a qualified doctor, start his ministrations that could well have helped seal his fate. So, at 2.30am a canine cacophony suddenly disturbed our night.  Dogs all along the route announced the body's return. ("Dogs unlike humans" insists my Khmer wife "can see ghosts!")  An associated well-oiled operation then kicked in with remarkable efficiency. If only Cambodia could administer things for the living in such an efficient way! Within minutes a public address system, powered by a generator, arrived and the usual blaring music and chants erupted.

The dearly departed was laid out in the parlour; perhaps silently enjoying the palaver in his honour. Up to now his community role was to help other neighbours make such arrangements. Now the favour was being returned. Perhaps he was gazing down approvingly. The local festival firm soon showed up, ready to set up the marquee, and the womenfolk got down to some serious "Bobor-making". Bobor is the rice porridge that is eaten in copious quantities.   Within a couple of hours, massive bowls were ready when the first mourners arrived at first light.  I wonder how many were just plain curious passers-by. I can’t say that any sounded very mournful. The absence of such an outpouring is no impediment to joining in.  So there was no sleep for us that night, nor the following one. Nor a week later and after another 100 days for the follow-up rituals  All this of course was taking place outside our back window, command performance view, etc.

The  Achar (senior lay official at the Buddhist pagoda) and some monks arrived about 4.00am for a live rendition of the chants and soon folks came from far and wide to peer at their old friend lying in state; to hear and recount over and over the story of his demise, and to partake of the Bobor for breakfast! This chat and coming and going went on most of the day with the occasional lull when the generator ran out of fuel or the tape-player went on the blink.  Both occurred with regularity and dealt with as if an essential element of the proceedings.

The Funeral Tower
Now despite being in Cambodia for many years, when the early morning loud-speakered sounds* begins, I still find it hard to tell the difference between wedding and funeral music! It is not always soulful.  In fact they often relay the dearly-departed’s favourite comedy sketches. They tell me that apparently the spirit is still wandering at this time, likes to be reminded of his or her earthly pleasures until it is finally set free, which is usually at a predetermined time of the cremation. Amid the socializing, some remarkable equipment for the cremation is erected. Now I have seen these three tier pyre platforms from a distance but not literally next to the fence by our back bedroom – 3 metres away!  They are adorned with quirky things like lots of greetings paper, ribbons and fairy lights, and on top, up about 15 feet, goes the main menu item, the exiting guest-of-honour in his coffin. They put him there after everyone had their last glance at whatever contorted expression was left on his face. The endless re-run description of his last minutes gave ever-more graphic detail. The ladies present, and it was all-female company, described how they had dealt with the multiple bodily fluids expelled from every orifice until his last gasp.

The monks came and went and the crowd numbers peaked. The Bobor manufacture and consumption went on in full swing and - as if to "cock-a-snook" at fate - the menfolk celebrated their friend's departure in the same vein as he would no doubt have done, if it was not his funeral being heralded. They enjoyed copious amounts of [dodgy] rice wine and beer....incidentally right through the next night until the final Bobor breakfast and last round of activities next morning. The main show, the cremation, took place exactly at 11.30pm. The crowd walked around the platform three times; then the flames were ignited.  At this point I feared for our house and inhalations. I had taken the precaution of closing and trying to seal every window and door, partly to keep down the noise, and partly in anticipation of a distinct aroma.  But there was none. The platform has a sealed inside with a release chimney that is hidden by the decoration and fairy-lights atop, and even more strangely, there was not much left in the way of ashes and bones. I tell you, it seems a much more efficient operation than our “Western” crematoria, more fuel economic, and environmentally-friendly too.

A house fit for a better life
Two final rituals intrigued. Someone had built what resembled a Doll’s House, a mini-replica of a mansion, complete with satellite TV dish. It was certainly more grandiose than the dearly departed’s modest abode. However, they said that it would be fitting for him to have this better house, in his next life. So it was duly set on fire, with the smoke taking it to him. Next the sons and daughters sat with the Achar for what can only be described as “pass-the-parcel” with some bones, obviously a symbolic gesture of the mantle passing from one generation to the next.


A new family mausoleum

The untimely funeral of course caused the neighbour’s widow to go in to quite some debt, although she was helped by the Sangkhat’s funeral fund.  In fact the commune official was quick to come round our houses collecting new contributions. Unfortunately, I doubt if the family has afforded building a mausoleum at the local pagoda, as do richer families. However, the remains may be well-looked after.  I visited one abbot at a pagoda and in his very modest room, he was surrounded by urns and containers of remains, waiting to reach their final resting place.  My late neighbour would no doubt settle for that.

There is one final thing that is fascinating.  On the very spot where the bones from his ashes were collected, today the family grows a succulent lettuce-type plant, that is one of the ingredients in the sticky-rice confection produced and sold every day.  A noisy moto and trailer arrives without fail 4.00am to collect them to go to market.

So Khmer people remain reverential towards their ancestors.  Indeed many observe religiously the annual grave-cleaning ceremony in the same way as the Chinese.

What I find strange is that reverence does not extend to their indigenous compatriots.  All the minorities, often known collectively as Highlanders (though they include lowlanders), have strong burial traditions.  These stem from their animist beliefs, with spirits who inhabit nature and the forests, especially over sacred burial grounds.  Sadly as Cambodia has sought to develop economically vast swathes of indigenous peoples’ lands have been confiscated with scant regard for their sanctity or international and domestic laws to protect them that ought to apply. (See this Cambodia Daily article and my previous blog about the lack of respect and appreciation of indigenous people's culture.)

* It is a mystery to all but Cambodians how the invention of public address systems found its way in to local cultural rites of passage events, such as weddings; funerals and other family or community announcements.  They tell me that it has always been their tradition to tell neighbours about such things, so the mega-blaster loud-speakers make it easy for them. There is complete tolerance for them, and other inconveniences.  One that is common is the marquee or funeral tower erected to cross the public highway, at times with no alternative route to your destination. It's not really a problem.  They will invite you to pass through, and stay awhile as a welcome if uninvited guest!


Post-script

Coincidentally with me posting this story, a major case of "wine-poisoning" broke in Cambodia, and needless to say, soon went all around the world.  We mentioned this blog to our neighbours who were pleased that their father was remembered and what happened to him could warn others to be more careful. Sadly, yet another case had just made the news.......again!

◄ So this blog is dedicated to the late Mr Kuon Sovan whose image now rests in blogosphere.

November 2017 - for more on the "Perils of Rice Wine": http://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-weekend/brewing-rice-wine-way-life-many-until-it-turns-deadly

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