Death is grief as much to a Cambodian as to a Westerner. However, many Cambodians are Buddhists who do not view death as the end of one’s life but rather as the end of a life cycle. It is a passage from one stage of the cycle to the next. In Buddhism, there is belief that all life evolves in a successive cycle of birth, sickness, old age, death and rebirth/reincarnation.
In Cambodia, when a person dies, the care of the body is undertaken by the family. The body would be brought home, washed, dressed, and placed into a coffin. The body is not to be dissected and organs are not to be removed because it is believed that would affect one’s rebirth. The body is not embalmed. Traditionally, the body is kept in the house for seven days or longer before cremation. Today, it is common that the body is kept for only three days. Monks come to the home and recite sermons every evening by the body. On the third or the seventh day, a funeral procession is organized to carry the body to the temple for cremation. The crematorium is usually on or near the temple grounds.
And so it is, that I had a special moment this morning, that I wish to share. I decided to get my toes done in preparation for a business trip. I greeted the manicurist in the Khmer way, as I had learned in the past that her home is in Phenom Penh and she has been in the states for only eight years. She smiled and we talked. She mentioned she was going home in October and I mentioned that I was returning to Cambodia in January. She asked me to remind her what it was that I would be doing, and I explained that along with a team of about ten people, we will once again be working with children who have been rescued from sex trafficking, or those who are at risk. Her eyes welled up with tears as she looked into mine, and she thanked me for our work.
And then she said: “You know, there are many things people can do to help the poor in Cambodia.” I nodded. She said, “My mother, who is 92 now, has gone back to Cambodia every year since we came to the U.S. She buys wood and takes it to the monks to give away to the poor people who cannot afford to buy a coffin for their loved one.”
Think about that. I am so blessed to have had this conversation. This is not meant to be grim, although I realize it is. But for me, this is enlightening. It helps me to further understand the depth of poverty for those people that I will serve at the restoration center, at the brick factories and in the community. Now, when I look into the eyes of the elderly at church in the small town of Svay Pak, and they raise their hands in thanks for our work, I will understand even more clearly their amazing strength. And once again, I am so humbled.