Funeral at dusk
The chanting of the monks echoes from the loud speaker through the dark. A young man has died in a motorcycle accident and the funeral is very close to the house where I am staying.
They began to sing yesterday as we were sharing an evening meal. These were sweet, traditional songs that, even without being able to understand their meaning, were full of tender memories and love for family. I had seen the pagoda being constructed on the street, as we walked home from the clinic. Beneath the golden pagoda, a tent of silk where the young man rested. The structure was covered with small, twinkling lights and was taller than the houses and small shops that make up the center of the village. A sound system on a truck was parked in the street. A large flowered tent was put up as a gathering place for family and friends.
Despite the sweetness of the music, the twinkling lights and soft silk I lie there quietly horrified that he will be burnt on the street just outside my window. In my country, we send our dead off and they they come back to us in small cardboard boxes full of ashes for us to scatter or bury as we wish. My own relatives sat in cupboards or on windowsills for some years before returning to the earth. We did not sit and pray with them all night long as the fire burnt and the smoke rose up through the pagoda to the heavens. Crematoriums are tucked away in buildings and not put on public streets.
When the midwives from the health center came to wash at the guesthouse they tell us his story. They had watched as his motorcycle hit the wall of the temple next door and said that his brother who had been riding behind him had held his head with one hand and called his mother with the other as people ran to help. They said he was a tall, handsome boy who was well loved by all. They show me the place he hit the wall.
I go to bed early and sleep for some time before there is a burst of traditional Khmer music played on a marimba like instrument. There are bursts of fireworks and then a great pouring of liquid. It is quiet and then another firework and another bucket of liquid. This goes on for some time as I lie in the dark and listen. Each burst and each throwing of the liquid seeming so sad, so final, so sacred. When this is over the music resumes. It seems music of great joy as if the spirit is being released to a better place.
It is quiet then and I sigh. It is over. But at dawn the monks have begin to chant again. I wonder if this means it is all over. The body is gone and his spirit is free.
In the village, the work of the day blends with the passing of one spirit and the welcoming of another. A mother in the health center gives birth to a new baby boy, the morning fires are started for noodles and farmers prepare to take their cows to pasture.
Each person passes by the pagoda on his or her way to school or work or to the market. They rise and sleep with the sounds of the temple and the chanting of the monks.
I take my tea and walk by. The box still glows a soft, golden orange. The chairs in the tent ate scattered in small clusters and there is the work of cleaning up of a great party. A few workmen begin to take down the silk and the pieces of pagoda.
In the dark of early morning, a new baby fills its lungs with the air of his country and cries as he is placed upon his mother. The air he is born into is warm and damp with the rains that come each year to flood the rice fields. The smell of fires, lit to keep away the mosquitoes and cook the meals fills his lungs as he breathes his first breath.
The translator tells me that they will open the box and gather his bones and place them in a bag. Some will be thrown in a lake or river to help the spirit find a cool resting place and others will be put in a small jar at a temple. The family will visit this place and tend to it on special holidays.
I look back and the pagoda is gone. I turn and go to the health center where the baby lies beside the mother. They say he cried al night and so I help him to his mother’s breast.
Later they climb onto the motorcycle; grandma, papa, mama and baby. When I walk home the place of the grand pagoda is a simple shop on the street with a home up above.
Since that morning, I have gone to sleep and woken to the sounds of many souls passing through this world. It is, I have come to see, and it is like the sounds of morning; like birds, the roosters crowing, the baby crying and the farmers going to the fields with their cows.
I, who have felt babies grow within me and have felt a thousand mother’s bellies grow round with new life, have lived in the absence of death. The work of a mother’s pregnancy, her work to feed and raise that child and make him new clothes for school reverses itself and turns to smoke above us. The people breathe him in, drink the water of a million bones and listen each day to the chants that will one-day mark their own departure.
The rains come and flood the rice fields. Children fish in small ponds as women gather grass for the cows. Soon the rainy season will pass and the rice will grow brown and be dried on mats by the side of the road. The baby, born in the rainy season, will take his first steps surrounded by the people of his village who clap and sing while far away the monks chant at daybreak for another passing spirit.
Outside each house is a small house for the spirit who protects and blesses the house. Some are large and new and brightly painted while others are old and carefully crafted with soft, faded colors. In front of other homes they are constructed of left over building materials; a piece of board and sheet metal. Often they sit within a small pool where cress is grown and a few small fish swim. They are tended each day with water, incense and perhaps some fruit or flower.
I ask if the spirit belongs to the family or to the house and they say, “the house.” We go to a very poor family’s house to do a home visit. The father is blind and the carefully woven walls of the home are hung with plastic. He says he cannot see to climb the tree and pick the leaves.
Inside the brother, who does not go to school, because he has no bicycle and the school is too far away, kisses his new baby sister. The older sister has gone to work in the factories and so this is the family’s hope.
I walk around and around the yard. There are no great clay jugs to collect water in the rainy season or large fruit tree or cow. It is empty and there is no angel house. This worries me but then I see around the house are branches of a tree with a special berry left to bless and protect even this humble home.
We have left food but the one platform is so small, that first the father and then I sit on the eggs. The boys and his mother laugh and say they will eat them for lunch. They are in a plastic bag so it does not matter. The baby smiles at her brother with bright, eager eyes. We all laugh and admire this lovely baby.
As we walk down the path, I believe we all offer a simple blessing within our hearts and minds for this small home at the end of a small path off a small, red clay road in Cambodia.