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Grief, Sadness Linger After Loved Ones Die of Covid-19 Due to Funeral Restrictions

Workers in PPE move the body of a covid-19 patient to a cremation area, at Tuek Thla pagaoda, Phnom Penh, on August 18, 2021. (Thida Win/VOA Khmer)
Workers in PPE move the body of a covid-19 patient to a cremation area, at Tuek Thla pagaoda, Phnom Penh, on August 18, 2021. (Thida Win/VOA Khmer)

Covid-19 restrictions have made grieving harder for family members who have lost loved ones to the highly contagious and deadly virus.

For 33-year-old Chak Siekly, health restrictions set by Cambodia’s health ministry - allowing no more than 10 people at an hour-long funeral ceremony for Covid-19 victims - have left his pain lingering when he lost his 89-year-old father to the virus.

With a face buried under a sea of grief and deep sadness, Chak Siekly cremated his father from a distance, not able to see his father’s face up close one last time at an unfamiliar pagoda.

None of those who had known and respected the Buddhist monk were able to honor his legacy in-person during the final moments before cremation, the son explained.

Chak Siekly’s father was the head monk of Srae S’ang monastery in Kandal province for many years. He passed away after six days of treatment at Olympic coronavirus makeshift hospital in Phnom Penh, in early August.

As of September 14, more than 2,000 Cambodians had died from Covid-19.

“I’m deeply saddened that I was not able to honor him and celebrate his passing with proper blessings from monks and the elderly in our community,” Chak Siekly told VOA Khmer on August 18, at Tuek Thla monastery in Phnom Penh, about 33 kilometers away from his hometown in S’ang district, Kandal province.

“It’s very hard for me to accept this, because as his son, I did not even have a chance to be with him during his last moment. He passed [on a hospital bed] by himself. How lonely his soul might have been,” Chak Siekly wondered.

The religious tradition under Theravada Buddhism that allows Cambodians to honor the dead and find a peaceful place for grieving and healing includes honoring the dead by having the body washed and respectfully displayed for immediate family members to honor at their own home for at least two days. During that time, relatives and members of the community are able to join and pay respects to the deceased.

Buddhist monks, priests, and nuns often also chant and recite “verses of impermanence,” one of the essential doctrines of Buddhism – knowing the Dharma, meaning the nature of human existence. The chanting, often accompanied by prayer and food offerings and other goods to the monks, is believed by Cambodians to send the dead into the next rebirth with serenity.

However, the coronavirus pandemic makes it impossible for family members and members of community to practice the long-perceived tradition and belief. This has a detrimental impact on those who lost their loved ones to this deadly virus, says Soam Sareth, a Buddhist pastor at Tuek Thla monastery in Phnom Penh.

“What I’ve seen day in, day out is that [designated health] workers brought the bodies of deceased Covid patients, wrapped in plastic bags and none of the immediate family members were allowed to get close or see the face of their loved ones,” Soam Sareth, 95, told VOA Khmer in August. “It’s emotionally painful when you no longer honor their soul following our religious tradition.”

Despite such lingering grief and sadness triggered from an inability to properly honor the dead, some religious leaders encourage people like Chak Siekly to use an alternate way to honor his father and grieve and heal.

“The current circumstance is very hard for them [those who lost loved ones to coronavirus], so after the cremation, family members alternatively can bring their ash home and honor them as they wish to,” said Bhikku Vanchirbanho Kou Sopheap, also a professor at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia.

“A week later, they can bring foods and goods to the monks, who would perform Buddhist sermon to properly send off their lost loved one into a rebirth,” he added.