Siem Reap’s Fading Burial Tradition

Photo provided.

Siem Reap – Considered a living heritage, a heritage that includes ancient monuments and people whose culture and traditions go back centuries, the Angkor Archaeological Park exhibits both tangible and intangible riches. A location of old where generations of people still celebrate in ways past.

However, balancing modernisation and preservation can be a very challenging act with its own particular conflictual elements and trade-offs.

Moreover, traditions in Siem Reap, which is a province famous for its temples and culture, are also being threatened by modern life. Among the changes are the traditional burial and cremation practices that are slowly disappearing.

Im Sokrithy, an archaeologist and historian with the Apsara National Authority—the Cambodian government institution managing Angkor Park in Siem Reap Province—explained the customs and traditions of people in the area when one of theirs passes away.

Im Sokrithy, an archaeologist and historian with the Apsara National Authority. Photo: Isa Rohany

Isa Rohany: Could you please explain how people living in the Angkor area conduct funerals and how different this is from Cambodians in other regions of the country?

Im Sokrithy: Thank you for this question. First, we have to look at it from a bigger perspective to get a better understanding of the connection between the act of conducting funerals and the Khmer people. In general, funerals are considered to be among the processes called “Chlorng Vei” or “age transition.” And funerals conducted in the Angkor region are a bit different from those in other parts of Cambodia. Researchers have suggested that, up to present day, some ancient practices are still relevant and are still being conducted. There are noticeable differences in these practices between the native people living in or around Siem Reap and other people residing in cities or urban areas such as Phnom Penh. In the case of the Angkor-area people, for instance, the recently deceased bodies will not be cremated immediately. According to tradition, it is usual for the villagers to bury the body temporarily at a place inside the community called “kork kmouch” or “ghost dryland” (literally translated). In every village, there usually are “kork srok” (people dryland) and “kork kmouch.” The kork kmouch is an area above water, or seasonal flooded plain, that is used to temporarily store dead bodies underground for a period of time until the right moment has arrived for cremation. The due date is dependent on personal preferences. There is no permanent burial as seen in Chinese or Vietnamese cultures. Today, when we think of cremation, we usually refer today to the corpses being cremated at a crematorium immediately after death. On the contrary, for people living in the Siem Reap area, cremation is only done for the bones. After the bodies have been buried underground for a time (for decomposition), the bones will be recovered from the dirt and placed inside a casket for cremation when it has been decided by the elders or priests. More importantly, the cremation of bones is a big ceremony in Siem Reap while the burial is a comparatively smaller one. Cremation will be the main process with longer ceremonial periods and many bones from different people being cremated at the same time. There will be dances and performances as well. Basically, it will be an event. After the cremation, the ashes will be, once again, buried underground. This is the last and permanent burial.

Photo provided.

Isa Rohany: For the burial of cremated bones, is there a particular burial site or can it be buried anywhere?

Im Sokrithy: Traditionally, people from Siem Reap always bury the ashes at ancient sites such as near temples, pagodas and around the ancient bodies of water like ponds or streams. Anything that is ancient. It is a special tradition that is passed on from generation to generation until today. The purpose is to connect human souls with the gods because historical sites or sacred sites are places where the gods live. Some other regions have quite similar practices to the ones of Siem Reap natives. The only difference is that the ashes are buried in pagodas. Today, Siem Reap natives are continuing these traditional practices while the rest of Cambodia is shifting to more modern practices.

Photo provided.

Isa Rohany: So far, the APSARA National Authority, through your working group, has discovered some of the burial sites in the course of your studies and excavations in the Angkor region. Do you tend to discover many burial sites throughout the Angkor region? And is there any specific custom or any specific cardinal directions that are preferable to bury the bodies?

Im Sokrithy: Well, this is not completely thorough research. We have discovered these sites in the course of restoration work at ancient sites. The excavation process occurred because we have to prepare or restore the foundations of the temples. In the course of digging, we also discovered pottery in which bones had been stored. Furthermore, based on what we have observed, there is no specific direction in which the burial must occur. The only characteristic that we have come across is that all of these burial sites are conducted on the grounds of ancient or sacred places. In recent years, due to new regulations, this tradition is not widely practised although some people are still doing it. Today, many people bury their ashes in pagodas. However, there is one place where people still come to bury their ashes today, which is on a hill located on the southern bank of the Chau Srei Vibol temple’s moat. This location is popular for burials. The ashes of thousands or even tens of thousands of people are buried there until today. One point that should be mentioned is that today’s burial practices could be damaging for the temples’ well-being. In contrast to present-day customs, people in the past would just bury the ashes and finish off the process by planting a wooden pole and leaving a bottle of water on top to mark the location. Today however, people build stupas at the burial site, which is damaging for the environment. Hundreds of big stupas were built on the older sites at the much simpler burial site. As the number increases, it will eventually affect the landscape and national heritage.

Photo provided.

Isa Rohany: Do you see this tradition still being practised these days? If it is being followed less and less, to what degree do you think it is? What factors might have led to this decline?

Im Sokrithy: Of course, nowadays we are facing a significant decrease. This burial tradition will eventually fade away as time goes on. A few of the reasons are, first, we are running out of space for burial. The spaces that we have now are being sold and traded for commercial purposes. Therefore, there is no longer land for burial. Moreover, the price of land is getting higher, and therefore people tend to sell it. Secondly, the newcomers who have managed to settle with new livelihoods in Siem Reap have started to build crematoriums at pagodas. Going back a long time ago, pagodas in Siem Reap did not have any crematorium because this is not the tradition. The native population of Siem Reap do not cremate their deceased members immediately since, as I have explained, the bones are first buried before being collected for cremation. Thirdly, another problem is caused by mobile or temporary crematoriums. This can be seen as a profitable business, which can provide convenience to those who need it. Due to several reasons such as lack of space and time constraints, it is likely that people may prefer a moveable crematorium for the sake of convenience. So, these are some of the situations and issues that may cause the Angkorian tradition to fade little by little over time.

Photo provided.

Isa Rohany: How do you think maintaining this tradition can contribute to preserving the culture?

Im Sokrithy: This ancient Siem Reap practice is considered a part of the national heritage. Angkor is considered a national heritage based two elements, namely intangible and tangible. In terms of tangible, Angkor is considered a national heritage because of the temples, buildings, sites, ponds, streams, barays, and so on and so forth that we see in front of our own eyes. However, the intangible national heritage is the culture and traditions practised by the people of Angkor. These two are the values of the Angkor national heritage. Traditions that are being passed on by the Angkorians who have lived near the actual site should be protected by laws. These traditions should be conserved and widely presented and practised. Recently, the APSARA National Authority has allowed the people of the Angkor region to practice this tradition.​​ In 2013, through a legal procedure, we made our contribution to promote the custom and given people the right to perform their tradition or ceremony. The natives are practising their customs. It is not that the outsiders can just bring in their own customs to Siem Reap and consider that their customs have originated in Siem Reap. Each region has its own respective culture and traditions. We have to protect and conserve that tradition in that region. Whenever something new comes in, it marks a loss for that original culture. That new factor is the root cause of loss and degradation of cultures.

Photo provided.

Published in Khmer on ThmeyThmey News, this story was translated by Song Daphea for Cambodianess.

Related Articles