Caring for the Dead Ritually in CambodiaReturn to the Blog

By Juliane Schober on September 4th, 2013

Essay by John Holt

Buddhist conceptions of the after-life, and prescribed rites in relation to the dead,were modified adaptations of brahmanical patterns of religious culture in ancient India. In this article, I demonstrate how Buddhist conceptions, rites and dispositions have been sustained and transformed in a contemporary annual ritual of rising importance in Cambodia, pchum ben. I analyze phcum ben to determine its fundamental importance to the sustenance and coherence of the Khmer family and national identity. Pchum ben is a 15-day ritual celebrated toward the end of the three-month monastic rain retreat season each year. During these 15 days, Buddhist laity attend ritually to the dead, providing special care for their immediately departed kin and other more recently deceased ancestors. The basic aim of pchum ben inolves making a successful transaction of karma transfer to one’’s dead kin, in order to help assuage their experiences of suffering.The proximate catalyst for pchum ben’’s current popularity is recent social and political history in Southeast Asia, especially the traumatic events that occurred nationally in Cambodia during the early 1970s through the 1980s when the country experienced a series of convulsions. Transformations in religious culture often stand in reflexive relationship to social and political change.

Download the paper here.

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