Aged 73, Seang Kheun, a resident of Thmey village, about 70 kilometers from Kampong Thom town, was given a gift of a coffin early this month.
“I am very poor and don’t have money. If I don’t have a coffin, the villagers will use wooden walls or bamboo to make me a coffin,” said Kheun, wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and a black sarong, the formal attire for elderly Cambodians.
“I feel very happy to get the coffin,” she added.
She can’t walk or stand for long periods of time due to osteoporosis after a traffic accident many years ago for which she did not receive proper treatment. She has recovered from another serious illness last month.
“I can’t walk or stand for very long since I have a problem with my backbone,” she said, adding that she is given food by the local pagoda.
She lives at home alone while her two children live separately. One stays in the same commune and one is working in Thailand.
In a small wooden house sheltered by zinc panels next to the pagoda where the coffin offering ceremony took place, Kheun waits. There is a box of drinking water, five packs of rice, a pack of noodles, and some cooking ingredients, like salt and soybeans.
On January 4, Vital Premium Water Company, owned by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana, distributed drinking water and some other products such as rice and white cloth for shrouding the dead, to more than 200 villagers in Kampong Thom’s Prasat Balaing district.
Forty coffins were given to aging villagers in a ceremony, where they were placed in a line. Photos of the ceremony have been widely shared on Facebook, drawing criticism that the gesture was “disrespectful and an insult” to the people who are still alive.
However, five villagers who were given the coffins said they were happy to receive the gifts.
“I am not afraid. I don’t have any feeling of terror,” said Kheun, adding that she is old and her health is getting worse and worse day by day.
Kheun doesn’t have electricity to light her house. When darkness falls, she lights candles.
“Sometimes my granddaughter comes to sleep next to me. Sometimes I sleep along with her and sometimes I go to sleep at the pagoda,” she said.
Inside the pagoda, Andoung Ith, which was built in March last year, a dozen elderly people sit in front of a house where the monks live. They are waiting to share their “happy feeling” of being given the coffins.
Leng Theng, 69, who was also offered a coffin early this month, said he was seriously ill late last year and villagers thought he was dead, but he later recovered.
“My wife dreamed that I got a very nice house ... and that is the coffin that was offered,” he said.
“I am very delighted to be offered a coffin since my children cannot afford one,” he said referring to his six children, who have left home.
“If possible I want to ask for one more coffin for my wife,” he said. “I am not afraid [of death],” he said.
Sitting nearby, Sar Luot, 77, and Matt Nhoung, 88, both received a coffin. They have six children. Five have left home while one, who suffers from a mental health condition, lives with them
“I am very happy to get the coffin since I don’t have money for a coffin. It is expensive to make like 400,000 Riels [about $100]. How can I find the money?” asked Luot.
“It is good to be prepared with that [coffin] so it is not difficult when I pass away,” she said.
“Old people need their children to prepare [the coffin] three or four years or three or four or five months in advance,” she said.
Her husband, Matt Nhoung, said his children prepared a stupa at a pagoda in 2004 to house his remains.
“My health changes from day to day. Sometimes, I can eat and sleep and sometimes I can’t,” he said. “It does not mean a coffin will make us die soon,” he added.
He recalled that two years ago, his children made a coffin for him, but last year it broke since his children believed the wood was home to an evil spirit.
The head of the pagoda, Yon Bunyom, said the coffin donation was proposed by the local elderly community and that they were donated by an individual, not the Vital water company, which only distributed them. He said three families in the area had declined offers of coffins.
Bunyom said that people did not think the gesture was a bad thing, adding that it had been politicized after photos of the ceremony were shared on social media.
“In Cambodia, aging people always prepare the coffin or stupa. This is our tradition and it exists for a long time already,” he said. “It is not an insult ... this is just the preparation for their deaths,” he added.
According to the monk, each coffin cost about $125, adding that the person who donated them had said some 2,000 were donated across the country.
The Vital water company could not be reached for comment.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Cultures and Religion, Seng Somony, however, said it was “not ethical” for the photographs to have been shared on social media.
When the recipients of the coffins pass away, they will be buried in woodland behind the village known as the “ghost forest”. Kheun says her daughter has promised to return from Thailand when she dies so she can attend the cremation ceremony.