The Stupa: a high rise for generations of human remains

Stupors outside a temple about 40 inutes from Siem Reap, Cambodia

It’s easy to look past the colourful monuments that surround the large, majestic and eye-catching temples of south-east Asia. In size and elegance, there’s no comparison.

Yet outside these magnificent houses of respect and worship, there are a plethora of smaller buildings. They may just look like decoration but each of these ‘stupas’ house the created remains of several generations – with the urns of family elders placed on the top shelf of three internal shelves and subsequent generations on the lower shelves. Much expense is spent on these little buildings. Traditionally they held the possessions of those departed but, these days, they house the cremated remains of family members.

A worker builds a stupor close to a temple on the outskirts of Siem Reap in Cambodia
A worker builds a stupor close to a temple on the outskirts of Siem Reap in Cambodia. The great grandparents or grandparents will be moved into the top storey of the monument.

While Cambodia is a poor country with many families struggling to even reach the poverty line, a lot of money is spent on stupas. This stupa above is being built about an hour from Siem Reap. The cost? About US$3,000, which is an extraordinary amount when some Cambodians struggle to make $1.50 per day.

A crematorium sits in the distance behind a temple in Cambodia.
A crematorium sits in the distance behind a temple in Cambodia. Mourners bring wood as a final and practical offering.

For westerners, temples are an intriguing unknown. Am I allowed in? Why do have to take my shoes off? What religion is practiced here? Will I burst into flames if I enter? A myriad of religions is practiced often side-by-side and often with elements of several religions combined. You’ll be excused for confusing Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism which all seem to go hand in hand in countries like Cambodia. While most Cambodians identify as Buddhists, Hinduism, for example, influences significant events such as weddings and funerals, and the use of astrology to determine the most appropriate dates for important occasions.

Buddhists believe in cremations and that’s why there are crematoriums very close to most temples. Here, in a village not far from near Siem Reap, this wagon is offered free to anyone using the nearby crematorium.  Inside is the body in a bamboo coffin. The ceremonial casket is not burned and lives to provide pomp and ceremony for other village members for years to come. Mourners bring wood to fuel the cremation which usually takes about three hours.

This ceremonial wagon or cart leads a procession to the crematorium.
This ceremonial wagon or cart leads a procession to the crematorium where the deceased will be burned using donations of wood from mourners who also bring food and water and monetary donations for the family.

 While tens of thousands of tourists flock to the well-known temples of Ankor Wat, few realise they’re scampering through crematoriums as well as temples.  Pre Rup temple was a Hindu temple built in 961AD (Yes, it’s more than 1,000 years old!). It’s believed funerals took place at this temple, with two crematoriums within the temple itself – one for men, one for women.

Pre Rup is a Hindu temple near Siem Reap. The building on the left is thought to be a crematorium for men.
Pre Rup is a Hindu temple near Siem Reap, not far from Ankor Wat. The building on the left is thought to be a crematorium for men.

So the next time you’re in Asia or India, keep an eye out for both crematoriums and stupas. You’ll be surprised how common they are and the pride of place they hold. It’s the opposite approach to that of western society and its treatment of the dead and their remains, isn’t it?

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$12.99 on Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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