We bounced down a dirt road, the driver navigating around potholes so big they threatened to swallow our van whole. We turned off onto an even narrower road with steep sides giving way to flooded rice fields. I could hear the tinny recording of a temple xylophone getting nearer and I knew we were almost there. That music lets everyone in the village know that a family is holding a funeral.
We had planned to visit Prey Vang, a 2.5-hour van ride from Phnom Penh, the following weekend. Agugu, our tuk-tuk driver and closest Cambodian friend, had been asking us to come practically all summer. His uncle had started a batch of the family’s famous rice wine a month ago in anticipation. Unfortunately, his father passed away after a prolonged illness and Agugu asked us to come for the funeral.
Khmer funerals usually consist of a burning ceremony. Our boss Tom described it to us the night before we left: some monks chant, mourners circle the body carrying incense, then the body is placed in a kiln and cremated on the spot. This is what we thought we would be attending. Instead, as soon as we arrived, Agugu took us to the end of his yard and showed us a massive cement headstone, still wet. He told us his father was inside. It turns out that only people with no land, such as city-dwellers, cremate. If a family has land, they bury their family members on it.
Funerals are expensive affairs in Cambodia. The entire village comes out to eat, drink, and pay their respects. Usually, there are several more ceremonies at set intervals following the burial – one each after 7 days, 30 days, and 3 years. This would be the only ceremony for Agugu’s father.
His family’s one-room grass hut with an open front and rusty tin roof was hidden behind 6 large plastic tables under a huge expanse of tarp. Women – extended family members and neighbors – stirred enormous vats of rice and pork soup next to the house. Agugu announced with great pride that there would also be fresh chicken to eat, “much better than in Phnom Penh.”
When we met Agugu’s mother, I was deeply humbled by her display of respect. To do a traditional Khmer greeting, you place your hands, palm to palm, to your face and bow your head. The two variables of hand height and bow depth are used to demonstrate respect. Hands at about chest height are for equals – we exchange this sign with wait staff, for example. Fingertips at the forehead are for monks. Fingers above the head are for Buddha or the king. As a frame of reference, I was advised to place my fingers at my nose when meeting people at the celebrity wedding I attended with coworkers, a veritable who’s who of upper-class Cambodians. Agugu’s mother’s fingertips reached nearly to her forehead and she bowed her head very low.
My coworker Art and I stayed for almost three hours. We ate several bowls of soup and Agugu’s aunt came over to watch us and asked, “ch’naang?” (“Does it taste good?”) It was her recipe. “Ch’naa’na!” (“It’s delicious!”) we assured her. Agugu brought out the rice wine and we passed several rounds of shots around the table. It tasted very much like watered-down tequila – surprisingly good and smooth. Shortly before we left, I asked if I could have a photo of Agugu and his mother. My camera quickly turned into a great spectacle. I took several photos of his family, some of the guests asked for photos with Art and I (having your photo taken with a foreigner is sort of a thing here), and Agugu took my camera and ran around taking pictures of everyone. I’m going to print a couple of copies for him before I leave Cambodia.
Agugu plans to return to Phnom Penh on Monday for work. He will bring with him the remainder of the rice wine and his newly shaved head (it’s customary for the oldest son to shave his head upon the death of a parent). We considered Agugu to be our friend before this weekend, but I think this brought us closer to him.
Abby Simon, JD ’14, grew up in Kentucky and graduated from Boston University with a B.A. in Art History in 2009. She is currently a second year student at William & Mary Law School, and a member of the Business Law Review. Currently, Abby is an extern at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, and she plans to pursue a career in art and museum law.