Proposal To Move Crematoriums Under Fire

As smoke curled from the top of Wat Ounalom’s crematorium, 70-year-old Saing Chhoun wondered how this ancient Buddhist rite had suddenly become so offensive to city officials.

“This crematorium has been used for more than 50 years,” he said. “I have never seen monks or any­one else affected by the smoke.”

The municipality, citing a concern for citizens’ health and the environment, announced this week that it is planning to remove all crematoriums and relocate them to the city’s outskirts.

“The smoke has had bad ef­fects on the students’ health and the environment,” Mann Chhoeun, chief of Phnom Penh Municipal Cab­inet, said Thurs­day.

Mann Chhoeun and other city officials are studying the adverse effects of smoke from crematoriums, hospital incinerators and fireplaces. Crema­tor­iums, such as the aged tower at Wat Oun­alum, have been cited as long-standing harbingers of cancer, among other ailments, officials said.

“The cremation smoke has caused bad pollution in Phnom Penh because the city is so small,” said Chiep Sivorn, director of the city’s environmental department.

Officials are seeking investors to build massive crematoriums out­side the city center. The city is envisioning four 28-meter-tall crema­­toriums, equipped with mod­ern cremating technology to reduce pollution. Each has a projected cost of some $1 million, and will need a hectare of land.

Two crematoriums will be constructed in Dangkao district, one in Meanchey and one in Russey Keo, said Nget Chanbo, the city’s director for the Department of Cults and Religions.

“We are currently seeking in­vestors to construct the crematoriums,” Nget Chanbo said. “The new crematoriums will be of in­ternational standards.”

There are commercial incentives as well. Smoke from Wat Ounalom has caused Sokimex Company President Sok Kong to hold off plans to build a new hotel on prime real estate a stone’s throw from the pagoda.

“We have not built the hotel be­cause of the crematorium,” Sok Kong said Thursday. He said he is “cooperating” with city officials to re­move the structure, but he would first consult with monks be­fore going ahead with the plan.

Sok Kong acquired the large plot of land, where the T3 prison once stood, adjacent to the riverfront behind Wat Ounalom in a 1999 agreement with City Hall. In re­turn for the location, Sokimex built the modern Prey Sar prison.

Other companies stand to profit from the crematorium plan, officials said. The company that constructs the new crematoriums will be able to collect charges for its services, Nget Chanbo said.

“The problem is that it will cost people more money to cremate the bodies,” he conceded. How­ever, plans for far-flung crematoriums won’t drastically affect the tra­dition of carrying the body to the wat.

City officials said there is no timetable to implement the plan, which surprised many observers for its boldness.

“I don’t understand how they can make such a radical decision on something so deeply embedded in the tradition here,” said Helen Grant Ross, an expert on Cambodian architecture. She added that she expected a massive resistance to the idea, from Phnom Penh citizens and devotees such as Saing Chhoun.

“The crematorium was constructed first, so why do we have to remove it for the hotel?” Saing Chhoun asked. “I and all the monks will demonstrate to not allow the city to remove the crematorium.”


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