I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the different beliefs that various cultures have. A really interesting conversation I had with a student on Friday about Cambodian funerals further piqued this interest. I know a post about death is not exactly the most uplifting thing. But I found the traditions pretty interesting and quite indicative of Cambodian people’s typically Buddhist beliefs.
Normally, Khmers have many funerals whenever someone dies. The 1st funeral is as soon after the person dies as possible. This is usually the same day or the day after, and tends to have only the close friends and relatives as mourners.
Then, 7 days after the person has died, there is another, bigger funeral. This funeral is sadder than the first because this is when the Khmers believe the deceased first realizes that he or she is no longer living. The dead person begins to miss his family. He may also come back in spirit form to haunt loved ones or send them messages in dreams. One of my student’s friend’s brothers died. They thought it was a moto accident, but the brother’s spirit is supposed to have inhabited his aunt’s body and revealed that he was really murdered by his friends after a fight in a bar. Apparently the police here take these séances quite seriously, and will look into the allegations from beyond the grave just as much as they would if they were made by someone still living.
There are many subsequent funerals as well- one at 3 months, 1 year and 3 years. These gatherings are intended to be for more than just immediate family, and can become quite large and expensive. The 1 and 3 year anniversaries are especially important for those who believe in reincarnation, as this is the time when the person’s spirit will be born again on the earth.
In the mean time, the dead person’s soul is believed to be in hell, suffering according to how well or how badly he acted in his life on earth. The deceased person’s relatives must hope that in the past year or so, they have accumulated enough good Karma to help their loved-one come back as a human being, and hopefully one of higher standing in society. Because no one can ever know when a person has accumulated enough good Karma to be reincarnated, loved-ones will offer prayers and sacrifices for the dead for the rest of their lives- just in case he or she is still in purgatory. Many worry that if they do not continue to help their ancestors, their ghost will come back and curse the family with all kinds of calamities.
This belief in karma is so strong that it is often used as a threat by parents to their disobedient children. One of my students told me that when she would do something bad, her grandmother would say, “Do you want to come back as an ant in your next life?” Though Mouyteang told me she doesn’t believe in reincarnation per se, she always thought twice before acting up after such a scolding.
The thing that touches me most about this belief is how sad and full of uncertainty it is. I can’t imagine trying to earn my mother or father’s way out of purgatory for the rest of my life- constantly hoping that my offerings were good enough to keep them from suffering. I know Christianity has the existence of Hell and that the Bible does teach that some people will go there. However, I take so much comfort in the knowledge that I can have assurance that I won’t be one of those people. I can know I am saved from suffering. And it is NOT because I am good enough. I’m not. I won’t ever be good enough. But God doesn’t operate on a system of karma. There is no magic scale that weighs my good and bad merits to decide my eternal destiny. There is only grace through Jesus. I am so relieved that my salvation is not dependent on what I do every day. I am a constant failure. But I know I am saved because of Christ’s sacrifice. I could go on and on about this, but I will try to stop here. I love talking about my faith, though, so if anyone has any thoughts or questions on this, I would love to hear them! Post a comment or email me!