Families across the nation this weekend sought to put to rest hundreds of worried ghosts in funeral rites marking seven days since their loved ones died in last week’s stampede at Koh Pich island.
While many mourned at home, others continued to flock to the site of the tragedy, where the banks of the Bassac River were weighed down with lotus flowers, incense and snacks left there as offerings.
A small but thriving photo-souvenir business had also sprung up nearby, with Khmer visitors from several provinces lining up to take home snapshots of themselves in front of “the bridge that killed so many,” as one of them put it.
Min Khin, minister of Cults and Religions, said government officials were busy this weekend attending seven-day ceremonies across the country, but that the government would organize its own ceremony this evening on Diamond Bridge. Officials from every ministry as well as 49 monks were scheduled to attend, he said.
“We’re doing it to dedicate all of our good deeds to the dead people in order to make them remain peaceful,” he said.
The hours-long ceremonies intended to soothe the souls of the dead are usually held on the sixth and seventh days after a death. According to custom, until that time the dead believe they are merely asleep. Once they learn the truth, they grow anxious and must be placated with offerings to speed them on their way to the next life.
“If we did not do the seven-day funeral for the dead people in order to bring them lasting peace or get reborn, their souls would become ghosts that harm people or their relatives,” said historian Ros Chantrabot, deputy president of the Royal Academy.
Mr Chantrabot said that the ghosts of those who died in violent accidents were believed to be fierce and restive, so seven-day ceremonies were of particular cultural importance this week.
In an alley in Daun Penh district yesterday, Cheam Yoeun and his family were preparing to burn a large paper mansion for his son, Yen, who was 19 when he died on Diamond Bridge.
A chauffeur-driven gold Lexus SUV made of paper was parked in the paper garage. Two stern-faced servants flanked the front door. The mansion was accompanied by a deed and title handwritten by Yen’s brother and sister.
“We’re afraid that his soul doesn’t have any house to stay in,” Mr Cheam explained as traditional pinpeat music blared through a speaker. “The deed and land title are to make sure the home belongs to him.”
With funeralgoers looking on, a traditional holy man blessed the paper mansion, using incense to sprinkle it with water, then inviting Yen’s family to surround it with fake money. Seconds after a match was touched to the house, flaming ash and fake $100 bills swirled around the alley.
“We’re feeling better and more peaceful after we did the ceremony,” said Mr Cheam. “Yen studied in 11th grade and was really gentle, a gentleman, and never went around with bad kids. He was the youngest son.”
Outside a photocopy shop in Russei Keo district, a similar ceremony was being held for 20-year-old Tay Sibuoy, the youngest of five siblings. Her family described her as shy and retiring, preferring housework to going out with friends. A priest dumped sack after sack of fake gold bars onto a sidewalk fire dedicated to her.
“She was very gentle and quiet,” her brother-in-law Lao Kimchan said. “She hardly ever went out, but she went out that night.”
As Mr Kimchan spoke, he and several other men held tight to a thin white string that formed a perimeter around the family’s burnt offerings.
“We make this holy line to make sure no other spirits can come to get this stuff, only her. We’ve burned everything—a house, a car, a box of gold. What we burn, she will receive.”
When the fire had quieted into a heap of ash, they broke the thread.
“It’s all over,” he said.
“The seventh day is the day the dead people themselves know that they are dead and return to their houses, so we need to make offerings to them,” said Tay Sibuoy’s brother Bunhuor.
Mr Bunhuor said his family was more concerned with arranging Sibuoy’s funeral than with assigning blame or responsibility for the stampede. He said they had felt deeply honored when Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, stopped by their ceremony on Saturday night to distribute Red Cross donations to 11 local families.
“She told us that Samdech Decho [Hun Sen] was just trying to construct the country and make it develop but this was an accident that was impossible to predict,” he said.
Ms Bun Rany paid her respects at seven-day ceremonies across Phnom Penh this weekend, according to Cambodian Red Cross director Uy Sam Ath, donating $1,125 to each family.
Along the Bassac River yesterday, the offerings to the dead continued to pile up, with mourners stocking the banks with everything that a restive soul might conceivably need in the short term: ramen noodles, fake $100 bills, cups of coffee, tangerines, rice porridge, sugarcane, spoons and forks, and containers of pork and rice with tiny bags of sauce.
A group of elderly Buddhist laymen from Kompong Cham province’s Batheay district had chartered a small van to bring them to Phnom Penh on Saturday, where they donated money to the victims’ families and performed a small religious ceremony.
They reserved yesterday for visiting the site of the tragedy, paying their respects, and, crucially, getting their photos taken with the bridge as a backdrop.
“We wanted to see the bridge to see how long it is and why it made a lot of people die,” said Soth Soum, 67.
“I’m not afraid of ghosts here because we are all dead already. It’s just some are dead earlier and some later,” added 76-year-old Sorn Seng.
“We all feel sympathy,” she said. “Our parents are like their parents, our sons are like their sons. We are Khmers, so we feel that way.”
They were clustered around Mul Pich, a photographer from Pailin province who was doing a brisk business with gawkers, charging 2,000 riel, or about $0.50, for a laminated photo of the buyer with Diamond Bridge in the background. He said he had cleared a $75 profit every day last week after arriving at the site with a compact photo printer the day after the stampede.
Tin Sa Eim of Kompong Cham posed for a snapshot and proudly displayed the result to bystanders. She planned to bring it back to her village in Kompong Siem district to show curious neighbors the site of the tragedy.
“I took this to show them that the incident did absolutely happen,” she said. “The bridge is very beautiful like this. That’s why lots of people were attracted to it to die.”
Nearby, Doh Soeun was doing a more somber trade in lotus flowers and incense sticks. He said people were still visiting the riverside in droves for many different reasons.
“Some are crying and some just come to see and some come to pray and some parents come to call their children’s souls back home, performing ceremonies and then calling them back home: ‘Oh, my beloved child, come home!'”