The Field Relief Agency of Taiwan has not only helped poor and destitute Cambodians go to school or get jobs, but is also helping people in Cambodia to cremate their dead.
Founder and secretary-general Yang Wei-lin (楊蔚齡) said the cremation project started five years ago, when a village head in Cambodia told her that local customs stipulated that those who had died away from their local area may not be sent home, nor may the body pass through other villages.
As a result, bodies were placed beside trees to await the family’s arrival to claim it, but due to the heat and exposure to the elements, it was impossible to keep bodies for long, and they often just rotted or were even eaten by dogs, Yang said.
When family members of the deceased came to claim the body, they were frequently confronted with a rotting or mangled corpse, only adding to their grief, Yang said.
The poor of Cambodia often simply chose a spot at random, dug a hole, wrapped the body of their deceased family member in white cloth or a straw mat, then placed the body on a pyre and burned it, Yang said.
However, ash or other remnants of the burning would sometimes pollute local water, or bones that had not been completely burnt to ash would also end up being eaten by wild dogs, Yang said.
Yang said she had delivered wood and money to a family whose mother had died of AIDS and had been so poor that it could not afford the wood with which to cremate her body.
Seeing three children watch their mother being cremated on a pyre consisting of simple wooden planks was heart-rending, Yang said, adding that it was after witnessing this pitiful scene that she felt compelled to do something.
Seeing the immediate need for morgues in which to place bodies — and offering a place for family members and friends to come to send the spirit of the deceased on its next journey through rites and chanting — Yang and the organization raised funds to build the first morgue in the area.
To avoid using donations which had been made to support educational projects, for which the agency had been founded, Yang personally made individual calls to donors to ask if they were willing to sponsor a burial set including both a morgue and a furnace costing NT$200,000.
Though some refused the request on the grounds that they would rather their money went to assist the living, many others were only too glad to help.
A Taichung man surnamed Wang (王), who had been a chicken farmer, mustered up 50 friends and members of his family to sponsor one of the sets offered by the agency.
Hsieh Chia-hsun (謝佳勳), once a colleague of Yang’s during her days as a flight attendant with China Airlines prior to founding the agency, had also helped out, Yang said.
Hsin Chih-hsiu (辛智秀), the widow of a Taiwanese businessman, knew what it was like to come claim the body of a loved one only to be greeted with an urn containing ashes — as that was what had happened following the death of her husband after an accident in China — and she not only sponsored a set herself, but also mobilized her family and friends to pay for 10 more sets.
Another woman, surnamed Chen (陳), was very familiar, with Cambodian funerary culture as her husband had been doing business in the country when he had died. She paid for four sets.
When the first cremation furnace had been built and the ribbon was to be cut in the opening ceremony, all the children in the village lined up in rows to welcome guests.
The event was also presided over by a monk, showing that the building of the furnace had been a very important event for the village, Yang said.
She added that the furnace and the morgue would benefit nearly 100,000 inhabitants in 59 villages in the area.
“Many villagers had tears in their eyes as they thanked us for the chance of being able to see their loved ones off on their final journey, and some monks in more distant villages had even walked for two days just so they could apply to use the furnace and the morgue,” Yang said.
Currently there are 20 more villages who have need of such facilities, Yang said.
Just this year, Yang visited a hospital on the border of Cambodia and Thailand and found out about the remains of many Cambodians which had been repatriated after they had illegally crossed the border to work in Thailand.
Many of the urns holding their ashes had been strewn about like garbage after they were hurriedly cremated because their deaths had resulted from either sickness, injuries sustained at work, or being beaten to death in prison, Yang said.
“I understood then why many families in Cambodia said that they had lost all contact with their family members after they left for other countries to work,” she said, adding that the idea of the deceased not being able to be reunited with their families was one she could not accept.
To that end, the agency started another fundraiser to provide proper urns — over 221 urns this year alone — in which to put the ashes of the deceased, labeling each with the name of the deceased in the hope that some day a family member would come and take them home, Yang said.
“We don’t want people to just vanish from the world,” Yang said.