My father-in-law Papa Souen died suddenly and unexpectedly on Sunday night in the little grass hut on the family land in Kampot town. I left to go to Sihanoukville for work 4am Monday morning and got halfway when my wife called and told me the news.Papa Souen was 57 years old and had been divorced from his wife and “outside” the family for some years but nonetheless he was father to my wife and all the other Yim kids and grandfather to my two kids. The family mobilised and came down from Phnom Penh within hours of hearing the news and once I got my work out of the way at the port I headed into town to transfer funds for the impending funeral and then headed across to Kampot to meet everyone. I had to have a swim in the river to clean myself and with only the clothes on my back I headed to the market and bought flip flops and a spare t shirt. When I got to the little sliver of family land in the center of town, a tent had been erected already, the dingledongle music was playing and Papa Soeun was wrapped in a white cloth in full view and so begun the most amazing 36 hours of life.
While the women cooked huge tubs of rice porridge and ginger chicken, the Yim boys all went off to shave their heads and then returned and with Papa’s few friends and neighbors watching on as a family we then washed and groomed Papa and dressed him in some nice new clothes. We carried him bodily from the simple bamboo bed he died on into his $50 plywood coffin and settled him in and then I had to go to the Wat and pick up the very same young monks who I had picked up for my uncle’s death a few months ago and they all remembered me ” ah Justin ….you come back again we are sorry for your loss…and do you get on Facebook yet ?”. Ceremonies continued and when they were done I took the monks home and then returned to a sit down dinner under the little tent. By now the family were all sweaty,hot,very tired and very hungry and emotions were raw but as the music dingledongled we ate together and laughed and cried. Some cold beers were purchased for for me and there was 30 litres of rice wine for Papa’s mates in a plastic jerry can. Papa was in his casket and the incense and candles burned all night as family relationships were repaired and new friends were made . Every time the girls needed to go to the bathroom we would head off across a little paddock to the house of a neighbor with me lighting the way with a torch. As the girls spent pennies, I got to know the beautiful big brahman cow who was heavily pregnant but placid as can be and she loved a scratch behind those huge plate sized ears of hers.Even their little piglet was friendly and it was nice to be surrounded by animals though at one stage the tears came think and fast as I thought of Karma. The stars were shining bright that night in a fiery display we miss in Phnom Penh and the rural smell of hay and dung and dirt roads and food cooking was just fantastic. We were never in a hurry to go from A to B and the night ambled on . Mum did not attend as she and Papa were well and truly estranged and some of the family were suffering from a lot of guilt at how papa died and they had to make amends with themselves so that was very painful to watch. Eventually at midnight I had to hit the pillow as I was just spent so I left them all there and went to a cheap hotel.
In the morning I returned at 8am to fond the same crowd sitting around. The men had spent all night playing cards and drinking their rice wine and although dusty and red eyed from tears and booze they were in good form and well behaved. The girls had spent the whole night talking and the younger kids did whatever younger kids do all night. By now everyone is truly spent but there is more to come as the monks arrive again for more ceremony, breakfast is served and we then load Papa onto a flatbed truck and head for the wat. The sons “tow” the truck at a snails pace with a thick rope attached at the front and immediately behind the family walk shrouded in white cloaks behind the truck throwing out fake $100 bills and jasmine flowers. The temperature at 10am is already on the 30s and they are barefoot in the gravel and burning asphalt and later my wife shows me her blistered feet. On arrival at the wat the family circles the crematorium several times and then some more ceremony before Papa is carried inside.
We then waited several hours in the peaceful shade of trees and watched the smoke pall as papa took the next step in his journey. A lovely breeze blew and we bought cold sugar cane juice and chatted away. In an amusing turn someone noticed that they had forgotten to load papa’s little backpack full of his favorite possessions. Some jokes were made about papa being without cologne in heaven and the bag was doused with kerosene and lit up outside. It was then I noticed that it was the Jansport day pack that I had arrived with years ago when I moved to Cambodia and I was heavily struck by the symbology of it. I had arrived in Cambodia to start a new life with that very bag and here was papa departing his life with it. When the smoke finally stopped the family gathered around as his remains were brought out from underneath the spire. They all knelt and took blessings and then they sifted through the ashes for bone fragments to remove to a wat in Phnom Penh. Two large baskets of ashes remained and they were loaded into my car . We then drove those baskets to a lovely spot on the river and as the family watched I stripped to my boardshorts and carried the baskets out into deep water where I gently spread them into the flow and with that….Papa was finally and truly at rest.
It has really been one of the most amazing moments of my life despite the fact I did not know papa at all other than in passing . To witness a man’s final stages so intimately from his death bed to the waters of the river and see the whole family involved with so much hands-on ( literally ) respect and emotion was just a real eye opener for me. Death in the west is very clinical and mostly out of the families control but here in Buddhist Cambodia, it is a warts and all experience with everyone involved. I marveled at the reality of life and death in that you are here one day and ash in the river the next and it made me realise more than ever that life is short and to be enjoyed and cherished with your family.
As we drove back to Phnom Penh everyone in the car was asleep within minutes of starting the journey. They were all so tired and spent emotionally there was no gas in the tank. Once in Phnom Penh we took Papas bones to the wat near Psar Kandal and with a final simple ceremony he was put on shelf next to his dead son and brother. When we got home we had to wash straight away as is custom to be finally clean and free of the event so we jumped under a tub of water before gathering up our children for large hugs and kisses, a bowl of steaming pork rib soup and then…thank Buddha……bed.