The AshesFebruary 14, 2013
The body of former king Norodom Sihanouk was cremated last Monday. It was quite a momentous occasion, and although a supposed one million people lined the streets when his body was repatriated from Beijing in October, the funeral procession attracted far fewer people.
Many streets were blocked off and it was almost impossible for anyone outside the invited government bigwigs or royal family to get anywhere close to where the cremation pavilion was built in front of the National Museum, at Veal Veru, where royals have been cremated for at least a century.
The last major cremation at the site was of his father, Norodom Sumarit, in 1960. What is less known is that his mother, Queen Sisowath Kossomak, died in Beijing on 27th of April 1975.
When Sihanouk, as nominal leader of Democratic Kampuchea, flew back a few months later with his mother’s ashes, there was a funeral for her. Elephants and monks led the procession, and her ashes were interred in a stupa in the royal palace.
There are photographs of the event in DCCAM’s excellent book ‘Buddhism under Pol Pot‘, which is available free online.
The main point I’m trying to get at here is that Buddhism didn’t just suddenly disappear after the Khmer Rouge takeover; it was a slower process to defrock the monks and there is at least one account of an abbot who remained a monk through the entire period.
So with regard to the ashes, a couple of days after the cremation of Sihanouk, a group of monks came to take his ashes away in sacks. There was a giant stupa built on Phnom Oudong years ago and this was rumored to be where his ashes were to be interred. There’s also a much smaller stupa in front of the train station in Phnom Penh which is supposed to contain a relic of the Buddha’s tooth, and this second stupa was also a rumored destination for some of the remains.
Anyway, a certain amount of Norodom Sihanouk’s ashes were in addition to go to a stupa at the Royal Palace with anything left over destined to be thrown into the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac Rivers. This place is known as Chatramok, which means “four faces”, and is the old name for Phnom Penh. As the Bassac just divides in two parts, it’s the three convergences that are thought of as more important -the idea being that the God King’s ashes would spread down the rivers and cause huge fertility for the regions beyond. So a percentage of the ashes were indeed brought by boat.
What blew me away was that a royal dignitary took some of the ashes from the bags and went and handed them out to the people gathered around on nearby Chruouy Changva peninsula.
This wasn’t part of any plan – a security guy tried to stop him but got nowhere. To say these people were pleased is a huge understatement. One got a big lump as big as a fist, and said it was the best thing that had ever happened to him as if he knew from then on that his luck was going to change and he’d always have good crops forever after. Such is the power of ashes.
So, moving on with the ashes theme, in April 1998 a certain notorious Cambodian died. Some say he was poisoned, some say he was sick as hell and just died naturally. Neither his wife, nor his 12 year-old daughter were allowed to attend his cremation. He was burnt on a pile of old tires and garbage in a jungle clearing, with just one of his soldiers immolating him.
The pile of ashes had lain there for a few months when eventually, a local woman, who claimed her whole family had been murdered by this man’s soldiers, started having bad dreams. As she thought that the ghost of this old man was freezing cold up on the mountain, and crying for help, she decided to act. She put her whole life savings, probably a paltry enough amount, into building a shelter for the old guy’s ashes. She built a hut, with a few poles and a tin roof to shelter the ghost.
The place gradually became a gathering place for tourists, and of course locals, over the next few years.
For whatever reasons tourists would visit it and local people came for different reasons. They would come to divine lucky numbers so they’d win the lottery and kids would dig around in the dirt to find shards of bones to use as lucky amulets.
Which brings me to my last ashes story. My grandfather died in 1980. I’d never met him; just talked on the phone a few times.
He abandoned my father when he was 2 years old, and left him and his mother in abject poverty. She died of tuberculosis about 4 years later, so my dad was left as a virtual orphan. The grandfather left for the states, had some pretty bad times, but eventually made a good life for himself in Vancouver, BC.
My father never met him as an adult until around 1972, and said he never really got to like him then anyway. Around 1980, his father was dying of cancer, so he went to see him for one last time. The old man eventually died a few days after my father left Canada.
A week or two later, our postman Tom rode his bicycle up our driveway with a box in the front basket. He told me these were human remains. I didn’t know what to do with them, but I knew the ashes wouldn’t be too popular and I wasn’t going to bring the container into the house or about to be place it on the mantelpiece or anything.
I put the cardboard box which contained a metal canister under the hedge in the front garden and it was left there for two or three months. Every now and again my mates would take an interest in it and we’d open up the cardboard box, and the metal casket, and just sift through it going “Isn’t that disgusting, it’s a human body!”
Anyway, my grandfather’s last wishes were to be scattered on this beautiful headland on the coast near where he was born. My dad had been keen a rugby player in his younger days so he placed the box on the ground, took a running kick and then booted the whole monstrous thing high into the air so it eventually landed in the middle of the harbor.
Top photo: Richard Reitman photography