For many Cambodians today, remembering and grieving for family and friends lost under Democratic Kampuchea centers on the Khmer Buddhist “festival of the ancestors” — Phachum Ben. This ancient commemoration takes place at the local wat of villages and cities throughout Cambodia. Phachum Ben is a fifteen day period during which offerings are made to the spirits of ancestors. The festival begins on the first day of the waning moon during the period of photrobat (September-October) (Kalab 1994: 67). During daily prayer at the temples over the festival period: …the monks chant the Parabhava Sutta (the sixth Sutta of the Sutta Nipata),22 which is also chanted daily on radio during these fifteen days.
On the last day people bring enormous quantities of Cambodian cakes wrapped in banana leaves to the temple, and most families [have] Bangsolkaul performed for their ancestors. Bangsolkaul is a ceremony in which four monks recite texts while connected by a white cord to an urn containing ashes of ancestors. In this way, merit is transferred to the departed (Kalab 1994: 68). Monks receive food, drink and other offerings as intermediaries between the living and the spirits of the dead. Spirits are believed to search for offerings from family throughout the Phachum Ben period, and most families visit seven wat over the festival period to ensure the goodwill of their hungry and restless ancestors. Phachum Ben is also observed at Choeung Ek in the contemporary period, despite the fact that the site is not a wat. In the early years after Choeung Ek was discovered, people living locally in the district visited the killing field at Khmer New Year and Phachum Ben. One explanation for the popularity of Choeung Ek as a site for Phachum Ben is the significant and chaotic dispersion of populations throughout Democratic Kampuchea. The post-1979 period has undoubtedly witnessed the emergence of a new social geography for Phachum Ben. The true resting places of many remain unknown to their families. Survivors may be embracing the Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa as a proxy location for the passing of merit to the spirits of their deceased or missing relatives. In this way, Choeung Ek allows for the performance of rites for spirits who lack a proper place of death.
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