Instant immersion

What does it mean to attend the funeral of a person you do not know?

Really, it seems like the kind of experience you don’t want to have. The family of the deceased would probably be looking at you unwelcomingly; they would unlikely invite you to share a meal; and indeed, you would feel rather uncomfortable. In fact, to me, this whole idea seems to be the epitome of disrespectfulness – and that’s because of my Western cultural upbringing.

You see, on Tuesday after myself and Jess met with Seng to organise our schedule, he arranged for Pon, the troupe leader for Kantoaming music in Siem Reap, to take us to a funeral and observe him perform. As Cathy informed us, Kantaoming is vital to guiding one’s soul to the afterlife,  so much so that if the family cannot afford to hire a Kantaoming ensemble at the time of the person’s death, the body will be buried but later exhumed so that the ceremony can be performed again, this time with Kantaoming. This genre of music is very endangered – see Dr. Catherine Grant’s research on music endangerment.

Upon arrival, we were welcomed by family members. We made a small donation and were even asked to write our names in the guest book for people who attended the funeral. Pon told us that it was OK to take photos (I was surprised to see that the family actually had someone recording and taking photos of parts of the ceremony). Interestingly, nobody was crying; traditional Cambodian funerals are usually six days.

Pon is in the middle of the Kantaoming ensemble playing the Srar Lay (shra – ly).

When part of the ceremony finished, myself and Jess decided it was an appropriate time to leave, however, some older ladies from the family kindly asked that we join them for a meal. By the time we did leave, we had learnt some more Khmer and taken couple of photos together.


Optimized-funeralwithfriend23.06.15.editedPhay (2013) highlights on her thesis, ‘Traditional Southeast Asian Funeral Practices: A study of cultural maintenance, environmental adaptations, and effects of Western funeral practices in the United States,’ that death can reveal many aspects about cultural values. In addition, Phay points out that who we are, our beliefs and values come from our individual self as well as the social environment we occupy and hence, this can be seen in through the funeral; how the body is handled after death and how the persons involved handle the situation.

Cambodia’s primary religion is Theravada Buddhism (Phay, 2013), where, according to Work (2014):

“Khmer Buddhist ceremonies begin with monks chanting dhamma blessings at sundown often followed by a sermon; blessings and food for the monks at sunrise; and blessings and a midday meal offered to the monks after which the assembled feast together and the ceremony ends (p. 8).”

Much unlike the Khmer funeral I attended, Western society mostly  ‘denies’ death exists, or see it as taboo (Phary, 2103). That is to say modern Western society avoids facing death (Phay, 2013). No doubt, the topic of death is another interesting point of cultural difference, Chris L.P.

The time I spent at this funeral was enriching. Besides realising it was a privilege to attend, I am still trying to process what it all means to me and for this project. Indeed, I do consider it an invaluable authentic cultural immersion.


  1. Informative post, Matt, thanks – and the photos are beautiful!

    Today, in the little alley right outside my flat in Phnom Penh, people are setting up for a wedding ceremony, preparing food and mounting a tarpaulin as protection from the afternoon rains. I know it’ll be a wedding rather than a funeral because of the colours: pink and yellow, rather than the black and white you encountered at the funeral. It too will go for some days, probably starting tomorrow morning (early!) – I’m getting ready for constant music, but these days, much of it will be played over a loud speaker! Ceremonies like these can indeed help us to better understand the people and culture.


    1. Thanks Cathy! That does sound interesting. I am intrigued by the length of both of these ceremonies! Jess and me realised today that there is a wedding taking place on the same street as our inn, a few of lots away and on the opposite side of the road. We can see the pink set-up from a distance when we stand out the front, and I have heard the music for a couple of mornings in a row!

      Pon was telling me that Kantoming music is played loudly at funerals, as you say, through a speaker, so that the neighbours become aware that someone has passed away. In a similar way, this must be t part of the reason why the wedding music is played loudly.


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