Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Cambodian funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Annang funeral traditions and Dani funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
Religious Beliefs and Superstitions
According to Pew Research Center’s 2010 religion statistics, 96.9% of Cambodia is Buddhist. They believe in the cycle of death and rebirth and see death as the end of a life cycle, rather than the end of life.
There are some superstitions about keeping the body away from animals. One superstition is if the deceased hears an animal cry, their soul attaches to that animal. Another superstition is not to let a cat jump over the deceased. If one does, the deceased’s soul becomes an evil spirit and doesn’t enter the rebirth cycle.
Preparation of the Body
The deceased’s immediate family members wash and dress the deceased and put the body in the coffin surrounded by flowers and photos of the deceased. White flags, called white crocodile flags, may be hung outside the home to show that someone who lived there died.
The body isn’t embalmed or dissected at all because it could have a negative impact on the rebirth cycle. Traditionally, the body stayed at home for seven days or longer, but today it’s typically only three days. While the body is at home, monks visit during the evening to recite sermons by the body.
Cambodian Funeral Procession and Cremation
After either three or seven days, there’s a Cambodian funeral procession to the crematorium. The priest, also known as an achar, Buddhist monks, and the deceased’s family members participate in the funeral procession. In some cases, the oldest daughter may drop coins behind her back during the procession. Women also shouldn’t wear makeup because it’s disrespectful to the deceased’s family.
After the cremation, everyone collects and cleans the ashes and bones. They may be put in a stupa inside a temple that’s close to Buddha and the monks to help begin the rebirth cycle. They also may turn them into a necklace to show the love and belief that their deceased loved one is watching over them. Or, some families choose to keep the remains at their home.
Mourners, typically just the deceased’s spouse and children, may shave their heads to symbolize their grief. Unlike in much of the Western world where black is the color of mourning, white is Cambodia’s mourning color, so everyone wears white clothing.
On the 7th and 100th day after a death, another Cambodian funeral ceremony takes place to honor the deceased. It’s usually in a temple with giving alms and praying, but sometimes it’s at a family member’s home.