Living Mission — Death is universal, but funeral practices are different

Emptying the water out of the grave before starting the service at the cemetery for a Pakistani woman whose family belongs to the English Catholic Community in Cambodia. (Photo by Father Charles Dittmeier)

Human beings around the world experience the same basic life events. The sequence, the length, the impact of events may vary, but most of us will pass through birth, childhood, school, work, marriage, illness and death.

The finality of death is the same for all, but funeral and burial customs can be quite varied around the world because of differences in religion, culture, education, economics and even the environment.

Carrying the coffin from the road to the grave site before starting the service at the cemetery for a Pakistani woman whose family belongs to the English Catholic Community in Cambodia. (Photo by Father Charles Dittmeier)

A person’s dying is almost always disruptive, painful and stressful for the survivors, and that is especially true when a person dies away from his or her home culture.

I work with deaf people in Cambodia. I am also pastor of the English Catholic Community, many of them single, youngish to middle-aged professionals, entrepreneurs and freelancers. There are relatively few families with children in our community, and younger and older extended family are far away.

One of the family putting dirt on the coffin in the grave at the cemetery for a Pakistani woman whose family belongs to the English Catholic Community in Cambodia. (Photo by Father Charles Dittmeier)

When a Catholic ex-patriate dies here, often the person dies relatively alone, maybe with a friend rather than family. Then the families abroad are faced with decisions: to repatriate the body to the home country (very expensive); to come to Cambodia for a funeral, if they can afford it (most can’t); or to have only a ceremony for the body here.

If the decision is to have a ceremony here, the question arises: will the body be cremated — the practice of the dominant Buddhist Khmer culture — or be buried? Burials present a problem. We don’t have funeral homes so I have to help find a grave. An expensive Chinese cemetery 1.5 hours away is not manicured but clean and orderly. The cheaper Jewish cemetery is jammed with graves close together and is strewn with every type of headstone, marker, incense pot and a lot of trash, beer bottles and dead flowers, but it’s cheaper.

Fr. Charles Dittmeier praying the committal prayers at the grave for a Pakistani woman whose family belongs to the English Catholic Community in Cambodia. (Photo courtesy of Father Charles Dittmeier)

The actual burial is mostly do-it-yourself. For a recent funeral, some workers dug a shallow grave (the top of the coffin is level with the ground) and lined it with bricks. Others made a wooden coffin. On the day of burial, the coffin was carried in the back of a pickup truck to the cemetery which was full of mud from the monsoon rains.

One of the family stepped into the grave to bail out the water with a bucket. The workers who were supposed to help didn’t show up so someone went out to buy rope and four men lowered the coffin into the grave onto bricks set to keep it out of the remaining water.

After the grave was filled in the Pakistani custom is to put many candles in the dirt on top of the grave and pour bottles of holy water on the grave of a woman whose family belongs to the English Catholic Community in Cambodia. (Photo courtesy of Father Charles Dittmeier)

Then the family used hands and hoes to cover the coffin with dirt. The wooden coffin had a glass window on top so the deceased’s face could be seen and the dirt caused the glass to collapse. Bamboo strips were found and latticed over the hole in the coffin and then covered with an old rice sack to keep the dirt off the body. The dirt was then mounded up and many candles stuck into the packed soil while bottles of holy water were poured on the grave. And then after an hour and a half all departed.

In other contexts, I sometimes have services at the request of embassies for their nationals who die here. Some are drug overdoses or persons with no known family. At a morgue I might pray over a frozen body or at the Buddhist pagoda I have a simple prayer before the body is burned.

Death is universal but funeral practices are really different.

Father Dittmeier is a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and is also pastor of the English-speaking parish there.

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