Tradition, Splendor for King Father’s Funeral

The funeral of Norodom Sihanouk is set to honor an ancient tradition for Khmer kings based on rituals not put into practice since the last funeral for a Cambodian King took place in 1960.

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Shirts emblazoned with the image of a young King Father Norodom Sihanouk hang in front of a screen-printing shop in Phnom Penh yesterday, four days after his death on Monday in Beijing. (Dene-Hern Chen/The Cambodia Daily)

Officials are planning an elaborate ceremony to be held in the same vein as that of Norodom Suramarit, Norodom Sihanouk’s father, after he had spent just five years on the throne.

Norodom Sihanouk—who died of a heart attack aged 89 on Monday and will lie in state for at least three months—made various public statements about his preferences for how his death should be marked. He once demanded a quiet affair, with a quick cremation. But hundreds of thousands of mourners lining the streets for his return Wednesday made sure his passing would not be low key.

“His last wish about his funeral was to follow the royal tradition,” said the late King Father’s cabinet chief, Prince Sisowath Thomico, admitting that the King Father had been changeable on this issue. “I believe that the protocol in the royal tradition will be followed for this funeral.”

Chea Khean, deputy director of the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals, confirmed that the ceremony would be in keeping with the past.

“There is a traditional Buddhist ceremony for the King’s funeral, and it has looked the same from [19th-century] King Ang Duong to King Suramarit,” he said, adding that the committee was currently working out the details of Norodom Sihanouk’s funeral.

Ang Choulean, a professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts’ archeology faculty, said that a Khmer king’s funeral essentially follows the same custom as every Cambodian funeral, but on a much grander scale.

“It’s visible. Everything becomes longer and everything is spectacular,” he said. Going into more detail, Mr. Choulean said the Brahmanist element of Khmer tradition is dominant in the funeral rite—which bears a resemblance to the funerals of Thai royals—but there are influences from Buddhism and animism too.

The body is always kept in state for a number of months, during which prayers are said for the dead king, a period that serves both practical and spiritual purposes, he said.

“You have to make all the preparations. You have to build a special building” on which to cremate the body, he said. “But also, the king needs time. Death is a transformation…. You need to prepare every ritual so you can direct the journey in the right way. You push the destiny in the way you want: All this is the duty of the living.”

To aid this spiritual transformation, the late king’s face is covered with a golden mask, he said. “When you die, you have to change…. You have another individuality, another personality.”

As the date for cremation nears —often after a 100-day ceremony—the body of the late king is placed inside a golden urn, Mr. Choulean said. Prince Thomico said that Norodom Sihanouk’s golden urn was already at the Royal Palace, having been constructed by a team of artisans over a year ago.

Traditional practice, said Mr. Choulean, was for the king’s body to be seated upright in the urn, which is about 3 meters in height, in the fetal position, symbolizing rebirth.

“You put the dead into the position of someone who will be born, someone in their mother’s womb,” he said, adding that the urn is placed at the top of a five-tiered pyramidal pavilion and taken on a procession around Phnom Penh.

In an account published in a 1928 Bulletin de l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, French architect Henri Marchal gives his account of King Sisowath’s cremation in March of that year—some seven months after the king died.

Mr. Marchal described the elaborate procession of the urn in a carriage “made up of three wooden platforms bordered with golden Nagas, supporting the urn.”

“Behind the chariot followed mandarins on horseback, then the women of the palace followed on foot, heads shaven, and dressed in white, decorated with signs of mourning,” he wrote.

Mr. Marchal describes the scene the night before King Sisowath’s cremation, where fireworks and bright lights illuminated the area around the Royal Palace. “The effect is spectacular: with the urn looming in the stream of light, under the folds of the long white drapes, studded with golden stars surrounding the pedestal, a decoration that is in harmony with the funereal lamentations of women….”

A week after the procession, Mr. Marchal writes that King Sisowath’s now decomposing body was taken out of the urn at Veal Mean, the gardens in front of the National Museum, and a funeral pyre created.

The pyre is then lit by the king’s successor. King Sisowath’s ashes were collected the next day from the debris of the pyre and placed in a stupa at Oudong Mountain in Kandal province, according to the account.

Prince Thomico said that some of Norodom Sihanouk’s ashes would be kept in a stupa at the Silver Pagoda inside the grounds of the Royal Palace. But, according to a wish of the King Father, most of the King Father’s ashes will be emptied over the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, an area known as the Chaktomuk.

Historian Ros Chantrabot said it was also customary to give a deceased king an additional name upon the placing of his ashes in a stupa, as also occurs when a king is crowned. “Kings of Cambodia usually have three or four names that they are given from birth to death,” he said.

Mr. Choulean said he was uncertain whether those making the arrangements for Norodom Sihanouk’s funeral would be able to reproduce the long unpracticed funeral traditions.

However, he said, “This King is immensely revered, so I think that everyone will try to make it an event worthy of him. This King has a certain aura.”

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