In a hidden alcove at Wat Lanka, some 100 ornate funeral urns have been left unclaimed for more than 40 years. Now, after being rediscovered, they could be reunited with their owners.
Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, found the urns on Sunday. He believes they were left at the Sihanouk Boulevard pagoda during the chaos before the Khmer Rouge took over the city in 1975.
Urns containing cremated ashes – known in Khmer as kord – are usually kept in relatives’ homes or in a stupa to show respect for the dead.
“People probably took them there because they thought that a pagoda was less likely to be shelled than their homes,” Chhang said this week.
Made of stone, clay, and bronze, some are in glass boxes with photos of the deceased, while others are wrapped in decaying white cloth. A few have labels with the name and date of death of the remains inside, while others contain a note with the information inside.
While the monks at the pagoda say a handful of people have come seeking their relatives’ remains, many went away empty handed.
Keng Menglong, 41, a former monk now a taxi driver, moved to Wat Lanka in 1991 to study.
“During that time, the country was peaceful and some people came to Wat Langka in order to find their family, and relatives’ urns,” he said.
“I was a young monk and my monk teacher took me to find the people’s urns in the underground place in the pagoda. We took a light to see the names stuck on the urns, but some urns didn’t have any name or date of death. Among 100 urns, perhaps only 10 were discovered by their family.
“Those that did see the name of their family and relatives’ name, they were crying so hard, reminded of their memories.
“Unfortunately some of them could not find their relatives because it was impossible to guess who was their family without clear information.”
Many of the labels have deteriorated so as to be unreadable and it’s believed to be bad luck to open another family’s kord.
Some of the urns may have been deposited in the alcove after the Khmer Rouge because the families had nowhere else to put them, Menglong added.
Chhang, who has been spending time at the pagoda following the death of his sister, discovered the 3m x 3m alcove behind a door blocked by a Buddha statue in a room behind the temple’s main hall.
Many of the urns’ owners must have died before they could reclaim them or tell their children where they had been secreted, Chhang said.
He now plans to look in the urns and publish any names he can find in an attempt to reunite the remains with their surviving relatives.
“I want to publicise them and find their families because they should not stay down there – it looks like Hell,” said Chhang.