Cambodian Funerals: Customs, Burials & What to Expect

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Preparing for any funeral can be stressful. After all, you want to be as respectful as possible. Thus, it’s understandable that some of us fret over what to wear to a funeral, how to express condolences properly, and more.

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These worries can be particularly strong when you're not familiar with the culture of the deceased. For instance, maybe you’ll be attending a Cambodian funeral in the future, but you have little background knowledge regarding what to expect.

This guide will help. Although you have to keep in mind that not all families adhere to traditional funeral customs, regardless of their culture, the following points will generally explain what happens at a Cambodian funeral.

COVID-19 tip: If you're planning a virtual Cambodian funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still adapt many of these traditions, like the procession, prayers, and traditional music, to include your online guests. Brainstorm with your funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.

Cambodian Funeral Customs

Cambodian funeral customs embody the influence of Buddhism. They usually involve the following key elements.

Order of service

A traditional Cambodian funeral service typically consists of several key steps. They include:

Keeping the body

When someone dies in Cambodia, their family may wash and dress their body, then place them in a coffin where they will remain on display in the home for several days. Families used to keep bodies of deceased loved ones in their homes for seven days or more.

For instance, they may have chosen to extend the amount of time they would keep a body in order to give distant family members more time to travel. Now, however, it’s becoming more common for families to keep bodies in their homes for only three days. 

Monks will usually visit the body of someone who died in their family’s home every night it is on display. They recite special sermons during these visits. These are basically the Cambodian funeral equivalent of funeral readings.

Procession

When a family is ready to remove a loved one’s body from their home, they do so in the form of a procession.

This procession will traditionally include a priest (known as an achar), family members, monks, and any other relevant mourners. Together they escort the body to a crematorium. In many (if not most) cases, a temple will serve as the location for the crematorium.

Cremation

Cremation is the customary way to dispose of a body in Cambodian culture. Cambodian beliefs state that cremating a body is key to allowing the soul to move on to the next stage of existence, where it will typically await reincarnation.

When the cremation is complete, some of the participants will collect the remaining bones to store them in a special place on the temple grounds. This is due to the belief that keeping the remains close to Buddha will speed up the reincarnation process. However, some families choose to keep the bones in their homes instead.

American differences

Although many Cambodian families living in the US and other countries often try to follow the process relatively closely, there may be some differences. For instance, they may be more likely to account for their personal financial situations when determining how long to keep a body before cremation.

Additionally, US laws generally don’t allow family members to keep bodies in their homes. Thus, while the body of a loved one stays at a funeral home, family members will participate in traditional rituals either at their own homes or temples. They might also invite monks to the funeral home to recite sermons.

That said, while Cambodians living in the US do need to make some accommodations based on legal restrictions, they can still take traditional customs very seriously. For example, when one Georgia funeral home cremated a deceased Cambodian too early according to custom, the deceased’s family won a $2 million lawsuit against the funeral home. This highlights the importance of tradition.

Food

Food isn’t a significant element in Cambodian funeral traditions. While most families will of course ensure anyone mourning with them for an extended period of time has food to eat, unlike funeral customs in some cultures, Cambodian funerals don’t emphasize the serving of any specific dishes.

Music

Funeral songs don’t traditionally play a significant role in Cambodian funerals. That said, sometimes a funeral service may involve chanting from monks, which can be musical in nature. 

Fashioning of amulets

Just as some Cambodians keep the remains of their loved ones in their homes, some even choose to gild a loved one’s tooth or one of their bones.

They will then wear this in the form of an amulet after the funeral service. They believe that doing so ensures their lost loved one will remain close to offer them protection.

Cambodian Funeral Etiquette

If you're attending a Cambodian funeral for the first time, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Attire

The proper attire for a Cambodian funeral will depend on where it takes place. In Cambodia, it’s tradition to wear white, as it is the Cambodian color for mourning.

However, that’s not the case in the US. While immediate family members will still wear white, relatives and other mourners will usually wear black. If you’re worried about making the wrong wardrobe choices, consider reaching out to someone close to the family of the deceased. They can probably help you make the right decision.

That said, because Buddhism doesn’t celebrate displays of wealth, it’s usually best to dress modestly. Again, this isn’t always a universal rule, as different families can have different expectations, but it’s generally the case.

Condolences

Cambodian Buddhists don’t believe that death marks the end of a soul’s existence. Instead, they consider death to be nothing more than a natural step in the birth/rebirth cycle that will only end when a soul finally achieves enlightenment or nirvana.

With this in mind, if you’re attending a Cambodian funeral, you probably shouldn’t express condolences in a way that suggests a person’s death is a deeply sad event. While you may express sympathy for family members who will naturally experience some pain after a loved one’s death, even if they still believe death is not the end, overt displays of grief usually aren’t appropriate for Cambodian funerals.

Money and gifts

Cambodian funerals involve honoring the deceased. The focus should remain as much on them as possible. Thus, giving money or gifts to the family isn’t a major custom, although, as always, there are exceptions.

You may be confident it’s appropriate to offer money to a family in mourning if, for example, you knew they were struggling financially and could use help paying for the funeral. This is an area where you have to use your judgment.

Cambodian Burial and Mourning Customs

Many of the most noteworthy Cambodian mourning customs tie directly into the Cambodian funeral process, as the above points illustrate. That said, there are some other customs worth being aware of.

Continued mourning

Although cremation marks the end of the basic funeral service, Cambodians may still adhere to certain mourning rituals for an extended period of time.

Specifically, they will participate in a remembrance ceremony either on the seventh day after a loved one’s death, or the 100th. These ceremonies usually take place at the temple, but they can also take place at a family’s home.

Prachum Bend

Prachum Bend, which essentially means “gathering together to make offerings,” is a 15-day-long ceremony that Cambodians may observe in September or October. During this time, traditional Cambodian beliefs hold that souls who could not reincarnate due to bad karma can visit the world of the living. They may do so to seek out their relatives, repent, or meditate.

Thus, during this 15-day period, living Cambodians will make offerings of food at the temples of their ancestors in case they are among those who could not reincarnate. They may also make offerings to souls who have no living relatives.

If a Cambodian family is mourning a lost loved one or ancestor who they believe had insufficient good karma to reincarnate, they might use this time to meditate in the hope that their soul will repent and be able to reincarnate once again.

Photographs

In many cultures, taking a picture with the body of the deceased at a funeral is a major social faux pas. That’s not always the case in Cambodian culture. In some instances, Cambodians believe the desire to take a photo with someone who has died (and giving in to that desire) is a sign of respect. 

This isn’t to say you should take out your smartphone and start snapping Instagram pics at a Cambodian funeral. Follow the lead of those leading the ceremony.

Cambodian Funerals: A Reflection of Culture

Hopefully, this guide provided you with a better understanding of what a traditional Cambodian funeral typically involves.

Just keep in mind, this is only a general overview, and you may still want to ask questions of key friends or family members if you need some more information about the specific expectations a family may have should you ever attend a Cambodian funeral.

Want to learn more about Cambodian culture? Read our guide on the Cambodian New Year.


Sources

  1. Mony, Keo and Jennifer Huong. “Death in Cambodian Buddhist Culture.” EthnoMED, EthnoMED, 08 January 2008, ethnomed.org/resource/death-in-cambodian-buddhist-culture/#:~:text=A%20funeral%20procession%20consisting%20of,and%20by%20wearing%20white%20clothing.
  2. Robertson, Holly. “Cambodians are snapping photographs at funerals to express their grief.” Mashable, Mashable Inc., 12 August 2016, mashable.com/2016/08/12/cambodia-funeral-photography/

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