Sunday, March 27, 2011

Notes on the death of a friend

Notes on the death of a friend, a bit more than a month ago…

4:00PM - Terrible news. Our friend and colleague, Mrs. Dam Bopha, has died.*

She committed suicide, poisoning herself today around 10AM. Her husband discovered her at 11 when he came home for lunch. She was about 50 years old, the mother of 4, well-known and respected in the community here in southern Cambodia. We know the whole family. Apparently there was some sort of public confrontation with another woman at the market this morning. Comparatively minor stuff, problems between their teenage children - teenagers in love, girl's family doesn't want boy around their daughter, complains to boy's family, etc. A not uncommon tale. But apparently there was a loss of face. Mrs. Bopha, mother f the boy,  went home, locked herself in her room and did herself in with rat poison. A rough way to go.

A friend came to our place around 2PM to inform us. We all immediately went to her house. Things were already in progress. Chairs and tables set out. An awning and tent with trimming ribbon in Buddhist colors had been erected in front of the house. Women were cooking food at a furious pace. Mrs. Bopha was laid out on a daybed in her living room, covered with a white sheet. Her best friend, Mrs. Lim (a health care worker) was performing a medical procedure, perhaps some sort of minor embalming. She worked quietly, with stoic expression and red eyes. Mrs. Bopha's youngest children, maybe 9 and 11, were burning ghost money in an urn at her feet. They worked with purpose. An incense pot and photo sat between her and the urn.

We spent maybe an hour at the house. After paying our respects we moved outside to one of the tables where we were served several dishes. Not feeling the least hungry I picked at the plate. Mrs. Lim came out and urged people to eat. I did, out of obligation.

9:05 PM - Back at our place. The amplified chanting of the monks from Mrs. Bopha's house wafts across the town. Here, a half mile away, the sound of the monks and funeral music rises and falls on the wind, from nearly inaudible to jarringly loud.

Foreigners, including myself, often complain of the seemingly over-amplified music that accompanies Khmer funerals and weddings. I think this time, for the first time, I got a little hit of the cultural logic behind it. The whole town is, in some sense, part of the funeral. We, her friends and those who knew her, though not at her funeral at this moment, are still participating. We know what's happening at her house right now. The sad and nagging question, "I wonder how the family is doing?" has at least some answer so long we hear the monks and music. They're receiving guests, burning ghost money, praying, talking about her, serving food... No matter how far away her friends in this town, we all derive the benefit, the comfort of continued inclusion.

The amplified music would seem a tradition of a smaller community, a village tradition in which every funeral and every wedding was an event that affected the entire community. In larger, more disconnected communities where the death or wedding of some stranger has no direct impact on us, it seems an intrusion rather than inclusion. I have felt so in the past. But tonight, it's consoling.

11:00PM - Just back from a smoke on the roof. Orion is already past the meridian at 8:30. At 11 he's low and there's a waxing moon further obscuring the view. Perhaps a month of Orion left. The funeral music continues, though much more softly.

My first reaction to this whole thing has been, 'How could she be so selfish?' She has money, a good job and dependent children... But there is probably more to it. Possibly depression. She survived the Khmer Rouge, she survived the war in the 80s including a rocket attack on a van she was in. It killed several and permanently maimed her best friend Mrs. Lim. She told me the story several times. She always seemed a very delicate, fragile person. Nevertheless, it is bullshit to leave those children without a mother. I can't get past that.

Two days later…

They buried Mrs. Bopha today. We went to their house in the morning around 10AM. Pallbearers lifted her in her coffin onto the back of the hearse - a flat bed truck with dragons painted on the sides. Her photo and a megaphone hung from the front grill. The funeral music started with the engine, blasting from the megaphone, a mournful droning bagpipe like sound at 120dB.

As the hearse pulled onto the road a local beggar who's a couple of bubbles off plumb unexpectedly jumped on the bed of the truck, pulled out a toy cap gun and rode shotgun, brandishing his weapon as if to protect the hearse. Nobody bothered him. The procession moved slowly through town, littering the street with ghost money dribbled by attendants from the back of the hearse. The money swirled in the wake of the passing motos and cars. Children ran along side, playing and collecting the ghost bills. We left downtown and proceeded up the mountain to the Chinese graveyard at Wat Leu overlooking city.

It was one of the the longest, largest funeral processions I have seen in this town. She knew a lot of people.

When we arrived at the pagoda her friends took the coffin from the truck and placed it on braces above the grave. The whole family was dressed in white, the boys shaved bald. Her teenage son held an incense pot and led the family as they walked in a line around the grave 2 or 3 times. The sun was high and hot. Monks prayed and most people squatted on their heels. Finally the mourners went to the soft, freshly dug earth around the grave and planted incense and flower bundles in the loose dirt. The family stood close to the grave and her husband received mourners as they passed. When I approached I saw her teenage son standing there, dressed in his white garb, holding the incense pot, his shaved head. He looked so miserable, so sad. This whole thing has been so unfair to him. We met eyes and I nodded gently. He responded similarly.

We offered our condolences, said our goodbyes, and left.

Rest in Peace dear lady.

(* Names and some other details have been changed for sake of privacy.)

1 comment:

  1. One of your best posts yet, it is good to have an understanding of hte 'inclusion' aspect of the music rather than see it as another annoyance of living in SE Asia.