Buddhist Cremation Traditions for the Dead and the Need to Preserve Forensic Evidence in Cambodia





Buddhist Cremation Traditions for the Dead
and the Need to Preserve Forensic Evidence in Cambodia

Wynne Cougill [1]

Documentation Center of Cambodia


            When Vietnamese-led forces invaded Cambodia in late December 1978 and toppled the Khmer Rouge, they discovered ample evidence of the mass death brought about by Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea regime. The death toll during the nearly four years that the Khmer Rouge held power was relatively small compared to those of many modern genocides (an estimated 1.7 million people perished from execution or as the result of starvation, disease, or forced labor), but no other genocide has approached Cambodia’s as a percentage of the population. The Khmer Rouge were responsible for the loss of about a quarter of the country’s people.


            In the wake of the devastation the Khmer Rouge visited on Cambodia, there was little public outcry over the disposition of the bones found in the mass graves that dotted the country, most of which were left untouched and exposed to the elements. Nearly all Cambodia’s infrastructure had been destroyed during the regime (schools, banks, post offices, and telecommunications were shut down, and religious structures were converted into prisons) and most of its educated people had died, leaving survivors more concerned with the struggle to live than attending to the dead.


            After seven years of negotiations, in October 2004, the Royal Cambodian Government and the United Nations ratified an agreement on the prosecution of crimes committed during Democratic Kampuchea and amendments to the law that establishes Extraordinary Chambers for a tribunal of the regime’s senior leaders. In addition to their historical importance, the bones in Cambodia’s mass graves will provide physical evidence of mass murders at the trials. But more recently, a debate has surfaced over their treatment and preservation.



Early Efforts to Preserve the Bones


            The Vietnamese-installed government of Cambodia (the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, PRK) sought to preserve the skeletal remains in Cambodia, at first to prove that their ideological and political enemy China had been behind the mass murders in Cambodia. Later, they viewed the bones as evidence of genocide and thus a justification for the PRK’s control of the country. (At this time, the United Nations and several Western governments still recognized the Khmer Rouge as the country’s legitimate government.) Two important sites in the Phnom Penh area were the focus of their attention, and have become symbolic of the horrors of Democratic Kampuchea today.


            The first is Tuol Sleng, a former Phnom Penh high school that served as a secret, state-level prison during Democratic Kampuchea (it was known to the Khmer Rouge by its code name S-21).  According to documents found in and around the prison, at least 14,000 enemies of the state were detained here, and when the Vietnamese entered Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979, they found less than a dozen survivors.


            At Tuol Sleng (which was made into a national museum in 1980 using the massive documentation that survived at the site), the PRK created a 12 meter-square map containing 300 exhumed skulls, with Cambodia’s man y rivers painted in blood red. The remained on public display until 2002, when it was dismantled. Today, the skulls from the map are housed in a wooden case enclosed by glass.




The skull map at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum       s


            The second is the “killing field” of Choeung Ek, which was discovered about a year after the invasion. Most of Tuol Sleng’s inmates, in addition to many other Cambodians – at least 20,000 people – were executed at this site, which is about 15 km from the prison. Victims were usually forced to kneel at the edge of the mass graves while guards clubbed them on the back of the neck or head with a hoe or spade.


            Large-scale excavations took place at Choeung Ek in 1980: about 89 mass graves were disinterred out of the approximately 130 in the vicinity. Nearly 9,000 individual skeletons were  removed from the site with the assistance of Vietnamese forensic specialists. The remains were treated with chemical preservatives and placed in a wooden memorial pavilion with open walls. To the dismay of many, PRK officials also “arranged” bones in a decorative manner for photographs.




Skull arrangement at Chhoeung Ek     s


         In the decade immediately following the toppling of the Khmer Rouge, many national and local-level memorials were constructed throughout Cambodia. A new memorial was built at Choeung Ek in June 1988. Its 62 meter tall concrete stupa contains a sealed glass display housing about 8,000 skulls. Vietnamese General Mai Lam, the archivist of Tuol Sleng Museum and designer of the skull map, characterized the preservation of human remains as “very important for the Cambodian people – it’s the proof.”[2]



Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial Stupa



Buddhism and the Preservation of Remains


            About 95% of Cambodians practice Hinhayana Buddhism, which does not prescribe cremation. But cremating the dead has been a tradition in Cambodia and other Buddhist societies in Asia for centuries. Many Cambodians believe that cremation and other rituals for the dead help ease the deceased’s transition to rebirth. After cremation, Cambodians store their family members’ ashes in a stupa so their souls can be liberated for reincarnation.


            Overlaying this tradition is the syncretistic practice of Buddhism in Cambodia, which combines elements of Hinduism and animism. Among the many spirits present in the animistic world are those of the dead. The spirits of people who died unnatural deaths are considered to be the most malevolent of these; because their spirits cannot rest, they haunt the living and cause them misfortune.


            In the case of especially inauspicious deaths, such as by violence or accident, it is widely believed that the dead person’s spirit or ghost remains in the place where he or she died, and does not move on to rebirth. One researcher has noted that “many Cambodians consider Choeng Ek a highly dangerous place and refuse to visit the Memorial. In addition, to have uncremated remains on display is considered by some to be a great offence, and tantamount to a second violence being done to the victims.”[3]



The Controversy over the Remains


            Most Cambodians – the general population, the religious community, and the government – seem to support the preservation of skulls and other human remains of Democratic Kampuchea. (This support is reinforced by an underlying belief in Buddhist tradition that people can cremate only the remains of their family members. Because virtually no individuals in the country’s killing fields have been identified from their remains, cremation could pose some obstacles in Cambodia.)


            The Cambodian Government has long supported the preservation of the bones as evidence. Prime Minister Hun Sen, for example, issued instructions for the remains in late 2001:


In order to preserve the remains as evidence of these historic crimes and as the basis for remembrance and education by the Cambodian people as a whole, especially future generations, of the painful and terrible history brought about by the Democratic Kampuchea regime…the government issues the following directives:


1.  All local authorities at the province and municipal level shall cooperate with relevant expert institutions in their areas to examine, restore and maintain all existing memorials, and to examine and research other remaining grave sites, so that all such places may be transformed into memorials.[4]


            Neither has there been an outcry from the Buddhist clergy. In fact, many monks seem to welcome the preservation of remains in situ. A local patriarch monk, who had initiated the construction of a memorial for the remains from Sa-ang prison in Cambodia’s Kandal province in late 1999, told staff from the Documentation Center of Cambodia:


One reason I got the idea to construct this memorial is that one member of my family was killed at Sang Prison. Another reason is that I observed the remains in a sad state, just sitting there exposed to the sun, wind, and rain. The remains have decayed and have even been eaten by cows. That inspired me to think that if the remains continued to lie in the state they were in they would certainly vanish and no evidence would be left for younger generations to see. In addition, if Buddhist followers wanted to come to light incense and pay homage to commemorate the souls of the dead, there was not a place for them to do so. So this idea of building a memorial for the remains came to my mind.


But the loss of the remains is what I have worried about the most. Because if people say “many died there,” but there are no remains there, how can we believe? So preserving the remains is the most important reason. I am not conceited. Many people have contributed their money. I did not build this on my own. I do not want to lose the evidence, so that people from various places can come to pray and pay homage to the dead. And I will request the district governor that this memorial for the remains should exist forever. And I am thinking of having monks stay there and for people to come and pay homage because some souls of the dead have made their parents or children dream of them, and told them that they are wandering around and have not reincarnated in another world. I want to have monks meditating there so that the souls of the dead will rest in peace. In Buddhism, when someone dies and their mind is still with this world, then their souls wander around. The remains are a legacy for the younger generation so that they may know how vicious the Khmer Rouge regime was, because the young did not experience the regime. I experienced this regime. Some lived through this regime as children but they still do not believe; how can those who did not live through believe? What can they base belief on?


[Speaking of the possibility that authorities would require that the bones be moved] I would not dare to oppose them at all. I could only request that they do not burn them, but give them to me. Please do not touch the remains because I have a stupa for them already. If they do not want that, I can bring them to my pagoda here. But if they still insist that the remains be burnt, I dare not oppose them. In my opinion, if they do not want us to keep the remains there, I would like to keep them in my pagoda so that people can come and hold religious ceremonies for their dead relatives.[5]


            Instead, opposition has come mainly from former King Norodom Sihanouk and some members of Cambodia’s royalist party, FUNCINPEC. On February 23, 2001, Sihanouk wrote to Hun Sen asking that the skulls be removed from the map at Tuol Sleng and “cremated in the Buddhist way” so their souls could find rest.[6] Hun Sen later indicated his willingness to hold a national referendum on the issue after any trials of former Khmer Rouge.


            Sihanouk also posted a letter on his website in February 2004, decrying the way the bones of Khmer Rouge victims have been left out and exposed around the country. He wrote that those killed by the Khmer Rouge will “never have peace and serenity” and that their remains should be cremated in nationwide religious ceremonies.[7]

            On April 17, 2004, Sihanouk marked the 29th anniversary of Phnom Penh’s fall to the Khmer Rouge by calling for the cremation of victims of the killing fields. “We are Buddhists whose belief and customs since ancient times have always been to cremate the corpses and then bring the remains to be placed in the stupa at the pagoda,” he wrote.[8]



An Effort to Resolve the Controversy


            The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) has made a number of efforts to reconcile the views of the king and respect for Buddhist beliefs with the needs for public education and forensic evidence from the genocide. For example, in 2002, it replaced the skull map with a satellite map of Cambodia identifying the locations of prisons and mass graves from Democratic Kampuchea. The King subsequently wrote to DC-Cam, “I would like to express my profound gratitude and warm appreciation of your unique state-of-the-art initiative in zooming the map of Cambodia with genocide sites to replace the existing skull map being displayed at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.”[9]

            In 2003, the Center provided a large number of skulls from Choeung Ek and other parts of Cambodia to a team of North American forensics specialists.[10] The experts chose ten skulls for analysis. In February 2004, DC-Cam mounted an exhibition of the skulls at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Entitled “The Bones Cannot Find Peace until the Truth they Hold in Themselves has been Revealed,” the exhibit sought to demonstrate the value of forensics in documenting the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity and to educate the public about the types of information that can be scientifically gathered from victims’ remains.


            Originally, DC-Cam wished to display the skulls for public viewing. However, out of respect for King Sihanouk and other Cambodians who are uncomfortable with the idea of boxing human remains, the Center looked for another solution. It thus housed the skulls in a separate room at Tuol Sleng, which is open only to officials

(e.g., prosecutors at the Khmer Rouge tribunal). Their final disposition will be determined once the tribunal is over.


            The skulls rest on identical pedestals built from slightly overlapping wooden slats. Spaces have been left between slats so that air can reach the skulls, thus allowing the spirits to come and go as they wish. To protect the skulls, the Center placed them in clear, five-sided Plexiglas cases secured with soft silicone caulk. The cases can be removed by cutting the caulk with a razor blade, allowing the skulls to be cleaned or moved. For the exhibition itself, the Center chose to photograph the skulls, which were accompanied by text explaining the type of trauma to each skull.



Photograph from the DC-Cam

Tuol Sleng Forensics Exhibition


1)  Cranium of a man, 25 to 45 years old.

Gunshot wound of entrance in the left frontal convexity with the bullet passing into the brain from right to left and downward on a 45-degree angle (as indicated by the “keyhole” effect). [Catalogue No. TSL13, 2A50700]




            King Sihanouk has proposed building a stupa at the old royal capital of Udong to house the ashes from the cremated skeletons. Once the Khmer Rouge tribunal is over, it may finally be possible to lay the victims to rest more than a quarter of a century after the genocide.


[1] Wynne Cougill began working as a volunteer editor and writer for the Documentation Center of Cambodia in early 2000. She is the lead author of Stilled Lives: Photographs from the Cambodian Genocide (DC-Cam, Phnom Penh, 2004), and has been resident with the Center in Phnom Penh since January 2004.


[2] Hughes, R. (2004). Memory and sovereignty in post-1979 Cambodia: Choeung Ek and local genocide memorials, in S. Cook (ed.) New perspectives on genocide: Cambodia and Rwanda. Yale Center for International and Area Studies: New Haven, p. 271.


[3] Ibid., p. 76. A few caveats are in order regarding these observations. First, Cambodian Buddhists do not bury their dead, and thus do not visit grave sites as such (those of Chinese descent do bury their dead and honor them by grave visits, however). Thus, most Cambodians view Choeung Ek as a stupa, not as a memorial. Second, the offense taken is a natural human reaction: the bones may be those of one’s relatives, which makes many people reluctant to visit the memorial. Last, some Cambodians do view Choeung Ek as a dangerous place because of the ghosts present, not because they fear physical violence by robbers, etc. Those who have visited this site do so to share their sorrow; thus, Choeung Ek can be viewed as a place of healing for survivors.


[4] Royal Government of Cambodia (2001). Circular on preservation of remains of the genocide (1975-1978), and preparation of Anlong Veng to become a region for historical tourism. Phnom Penh, 14 December, copy held at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, 1 page.


[5] Phat, Kosal. (2004). “Necessity of Preserving Physical Evidence.”  www.dccam.org/Archives/Physical/Importance.htm - 50k


[6] Original letter in the possession of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.


[7] http://openhere.com/current/414456498.stm


[8] The Cambodia Daily. April 19, 2004.


[9] Bail, Molly and Lor Chandara, Skull map at museum may be removed, The Cambodia Daily, October 17, 2001.


[10] DC-Cam uses global satellite position mapping combined with fieldwork to document mass graves nationwide. To date, it has identified over 380 genocide sites containing more than 19,000 mass graves (these are defined as any pit containing 4 or more bodies, although some graves hold over 1,000) dating from the Khmer Rouge regime. In addition, the Center has documented 189 prisons from Democratic Kampuchea and 80 genocide memorials.