In the southern outskirts of Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district, a new, modern crematorium is rising up behind the 200-year-old Russei Saang pagoda.
It’s a sign of the times: The ancient Buddhist rite of cremating the dead has come into conflict with boom times in Phnom Penh for the living.
In 2004, municipal authorities announced a startling new plan. For reasons of air quality and traffic control, all crematoriums within Phnom Penh city would be closed down. In their place, four massive new crematoriums would be built just outside the city.
Four years later, the gas-fired crematorium behind Russei Saang is the first to break ground.
Russei Saang’s abbot, Maa Theary, said he was pleased by the new crematorium. “I believe in development,” he said.
He wasn’t sure, however, where the profits would go.
“When the construction is complete, I don’t know who will control the building,” he said.
“We will need to discuss that.”
Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong said Wednesday that he also didn’t know how profits would be divided. He added, however, that progress on the project seems slow.
“Right now there is much work to be done on both the crematoriums and the roads to reach them,” he said. “Whenever they finish, I will order all pagodas in the city to stop using their existing crematoriums,” he said.
Reached by telephone Wednesday, Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun promised that authorities would use “soft methods” to address any complaints about shifting cremations to the city’s suburbs.
The city, he added, may not need to confront any resistance at all.
When municipal authorities first announced the plan, Phnom Penh monks expressed vigorous opposition. They complained that mourning families would have to go far out of their way for cremation, and bemoaned the loss of income they would suffer when the ban took effect.
Now that the plan is becoming a reality, the reaction from monks is strangely muted.
In 2004, Nun Nget, supreme patriarch of the Mohanikaya sect, said that he and other monks would demonstrate if the municipality followed through on the crematorium closure plan. On Wednesday, he denied having said any such thing.
“It depends on the municipal authorities to set their own policy,” he said Wednesday. “My pagoda doesn’t have a crematorium, so I don’t care what they do.”
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