A cluster of people are sitting on a large mat by the river. At the centre of the group there is an old woman, her head shaved, wearing white robes. My companion on this walk is Kim, a smiling Cambodian man who runs a small homestay near the Kampot river. I ask whether she is a nun and he tells me that a shaved head and white robes are a traditional sign of mourning. The purpose, he explains, is to show respect for the person who has died, and also to mark the bereaved person out for their community to be able to support them with food and care. More distant relatives such as cousins may also shave their heads, but more commonly will identify their grieving status through a scrap of black cloth tied to the right arm. She is smiling, and surrounded by family of all ages, and pots and baskets of fresh food – grilled squid, rice, banana flower salad and plates of durian fruit and custard apples.
When a Cambodian person dies, it is customary to keep the body at home for three days. If one can afford it, this is extended to seven days. During this time the person can be visited by any friends and family who wish to pay their respects. Very occasionally, the body is kept at home for longer, for example if waiting for a person to arrive from far away. For obvious reasons, this is not ideal – the temperature regularly reaches the 40s here, and very few people have access to air conditioned rooms.
After this, the funeral ceremony takes place. Usually the person is placed in a coffin and transported to a forest, where a funeral pyre is built. A monk from the local pagoda will attend and recite Buddhist prayers and blessings, asking for the person to be forgiven any wrongdoing and to be blessed with a reincarnation into a better life. The corpse is then burned, and the ashes and bones are placed in receptacles to be taken to the Wat, or Buddhist temple. A further ceremony takes place 100 days after death. This is a time of celebration as the first ceremony is often a sad occasion. Again, a monk will attend and the congregation will share their wishes for paradise for the deceased.
Once a year in the lunar month of potrobot, there is a national ceremony for the dead, known as Phcum Ben. Kim describes this as the “birthday of the dead people”, and he says it is often referred to as the festival of “Hungry Ghosts”. “If a person has done bad things in lifetime, like killed chickens and dog and doing unkindness, then they have bad karma and will be in hell. It depends on their mistakes. If angry person, then also in hell”, Kim explains. “Also, if people did not have relatives performing well-wishing ceremony at time of death, then person might also be in hell”. Phcum Ben is for opening the “gates of hell” and allowing people to enter paradise. During this period it is customary to return to ones’ hometown and prepare offerings of food and drink, and pray for the deceased. If one does not do this, the consequences are dire. The dead person will remain angry and may bring bad fortune on their living relatives. Phcum Ben is one of the most widely observed of all the Cambodian festivals.
It has been suggested that the popularity of the festival is a result of the recent Cambodian experiences of “unnatural” deaths – the 150,000 killed by the American bombing in the East of the country during the Vietnam war, the neglect, torture and systematic killing of around 10 million people during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s and the widespread starvation of the early 1980s. All of those who died during these times were unable to have a proper funeral. Further, one’s state of mind at the moment of death is considered very important – if one does not have a wholesome mind – vinnana (Pali) – this will influence what happens in the next life and may make the transition to reincarnation difficult. For this reason, the duty of family members when someone is approaching death is to ensure that they are surrounded by loving-kindness – metta and compassion – karuna – to enable the dying person to achieve this wholesomeness of mind at the moment of death. It is thought that many of those who died will have been forced through torture to tell lies, to incriminate others, to manifest hatred towards their incarcerators. There will have been no calm state of mind for at the moment of death. As a result, it is believed that many will be condemned to remain in a liminal state, in the margins of the world between hell and reincarnation.
Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek – more commonly known as “The Killing Fields”
There was no way to ritually mark the deaths of these people – many of whose bones have still not been recovered from the extensive mass graves that surround the country – or to wish for them to have peace in their next lives. For many, the deep wound inflicted on this country’s people led to mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction, domestic abuse and political corruption.
Drunk man leans, swaying, against statue outside village Wat. His abdomen and legs are covered in deep scars.
In more recent years, the festival has come to symbolise a time of remembrance and memorialisation for all those who have died, as well as an opportunity for the many people who still do not know the whereabouts of the remains of their deceased loved ones. As well as offerings of rice, fruit, sugar water and tea, generating a feeling of compassion for the deceased is meritorious: “when the recipient is someone whom one can esteem, the feelings of sraddha, respect, and joy, naturally arise. These are among the most noble feelings one can have, and thus it is perfectly appropriate to value these gifts above others” (Heim 2004, 81–82).
Flowers on sale at the market for placing at shrines
The ceremony has as much to do with the living as with the dead. It is a reciprocal event. The living consider that their ancestors are the guardians, markers or symbols of their own moral bases. – hence the need to appease any ancestors who may have harboured negative emotions. The tradition of returning to ones’ home town is significant – this is a celebration of sangha, family and community. According to Kwon (2006) “home” is the “ideal place for remembering the victims of mass death, if there is such a place, might be home, where they can be remembered as ancestors . . . . It should be a place where kinship, free from traditional ideologies and political control, reconciles with the universal ethic that all human beings have the right to be remembered. The revitalized memory of mass death relies on this universal norm as well as on the morality of local kinship unity”.
Rituals such as Phcum Ben may offer a symbolic means of protecting oneself against death anxiety. In Cambodia, reminders of death are everywhere – from the memorialisation of the war and genocide, to the many disabled and disfigured beggars that line the cities streets. Strength is drawn from religion, tradition, and sanctification of the family and the community. The Phcum Ben festival aims to help these wandering spirits, these hungry ghosts, to be finally put to rest.
Incantation for the Hungry Ghosts from the Tirokudda Suta, translated by Davis (2006):-
They stand at crossroads and outside the walls
Returning to their old homes, they wait at thresholds
Because of karma, no one remembers them
When an abundant feast of food and water is served.
Those who feel pity, therefore, at the right time
Give truly pure food and drink to their relatives, rejoicing
“This is for you; may our relatives be happy.”
Spectral relations gather and assemble.
Thoroughly pleased with the food and water, they reply
“May our relatives who provide for us have long lives.
We are honored; giving is not without benefits.”
There is no plowing in that place, and cow-herding is unknown;
No trading, no buying, no selling with gold;
Dead preta survive there on what is given from here.
Just as water poured on a hill flows down and around it, sustaining the land all around, so a gift from here benefits ghosts in precisely the same way.
“He gave to me, he worked for me, he was my friend, relative and companion.”
Give properly to the ghosts, remembering past deeds.
The weeping, mourning, and laments of relatives are useless
To those who remain in such a way.
But proper gifts dedicated to the sangha become useful to them Immediately and for a long time.
The duties toward relatives have thus been shown:
Veneration for the ghosts,
Strength for the monks
And no small merit for you.
Offering of a cup of Lipton’s tea at a household shrine