My Ex’s Buddhist Funeral Made Me Reconsider Grieving

Ken died in Phnom Penh. Before the fire of the cremation oven was lit, I talked to a large crowd — about his travels, his growing up in Michigan, our lives in Oregon and Cambodia, and his love of Star Trek.

A hundred people looked up at me as I spoke from the higher cremation platform.

His Buddhist funeral was, without a doubt, an event I’ll never forget.

While I’d left my ex-husband fifteen years earlier, we’d miraculously scraped a friendship out of the rubble of our breakup. He could have destroyed me, but I forgave his horrendous behaviour and moved on from my expat life in Cambodia.

I’m not one to hold a grudge, but it would have been justified. He had snuck a girlfriend into an apartment nearby and led a second life — unbeknownst to me. His behaviour became practically insane with comings and goings on his noisy motorcycle. I figured it out and got out of there. I felt like dying but extricated myself.

In time, I rebuilt a life in the USA, met a great guy, and remarried. None of this was easy. You know what it’s like if you’ve been through a divorce or a serious heartbreak.

Ken and I continued a friendship, oddly enough. So when he drowned in the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, his brother and his girlfriend — whom he’d been with for years — phoned me.

“Have you heard from Ken?” asked his brother from Michigan. He spoke with Midwestern tentativeness.

“Yeah, he’s rushing around getting ready to fly home to be bedside with your mom. We’ve talked several times,” I said.

Their mom was dying. That’s why Ken was trying to pull together money from the boat owner in Phnom Penh. The guy owed him.

The brother said, “No, I mean in the last twelve hours.” He described the splash from the boat that people heard — that Ken perhaps fell. An accident. He may have drowned. It was looking likely.

I sat down fast, leaning against a wall. I was dizzy and nauseated, but also holding my stepdaughter’s baby. I needed to be low to the ground. We said quick goodbyes. He’d let me know. We will stay in touch.

My phone began exploding with messages.

When the girlfriend marched to the riverbank to get to Ken’s body, which was found downstream, she called me as she walked. Her voice bounced with each step and she cried. We both cried.

“I need to go,” she said, “his body is here now.”

I had what most would consider an unconventionally forgiving relationship with my ex and his girlfriend. Now we grieved together.

Calls came in from all over the world as people learned about the accident. Ken was a well-known publisher in Cambodia; we’d started that company together. Everyone wanted details.

My ex’s daughter was a young teenager, and we talked on the phone.

Was I coming? Of course. I’ll be there in three days. It’s the earliest I can get out…

My husband Jay helped me plan. I needed to get to Phnom Penh fast, as they were ‘holding’ Ken until I got there for the cremation and the service. The facilities had lost power. Let that sink in.

When the plane touched down in scorching hot Cambodia, Pheng picked me up. I’d known him for twenty-one years at that point, and he was like family. He was a young teenager when we ran an English school on the southern coast of Cambodia. We hired him, and he was wonderful.

Pheng drove me straight to the house and we picked up the kids and Ken’s girlfriend. No time to waste. The service would start the next morning, and we had to prepare the casket, flowers, signs, and incense. The tables, music, monks to chant, and food. Bottles of water and Coca-Cola.

First stop, the morgue — a large building with an orange and white tiled floor.

I knew my ex very well. His children considered going in to see him and asked me what I thought. Their mom was already in with Ken, and I knew I had to advise them with wisdom for not only that day but for the rest of their lives.

“No,” I said, “your father absolutely does not want you to remember him like that. Don’t do it. Bad idea.”

And they listened. I am so glad for that. Losing their dad was bad enough. I knew seeing him in his earthy and decomposing state would be an image they’d never forget.

That’s the best part of what I did that week, telling his kids, “Don’t see him. He wouldn’t want that.”

Then, the casket was wheeled out.

We stopped talking, and his girlfriend and Ken’s staff brought boxes and boxes of ‘funeral money’ and other items. Funeral money is meant to help the deceased person do well in the afterlife. Who says you can’t take it with you?

We loaded Ken up with lots of items.

I helped stuff fake hundred-dollar bills into the casket. His girlfriend had brought his pants, shirt, and hat — not to dress him, but to place in the coffin. He was wrapped in visqueen. I couldn’t see him through all the heavy plastic, but he was there all right. I put my hands on his shoulders, his face, his body. I felt an overwhelming sadness. My face felt long, gravity pulling it down.

In went Ken’s sunglasses, his pen, his black shoes and socks. I remembered very well how he had modelled every shirt he had tailored in Cambodia from the prototype, a shirt he wore at our wedding.

His girlfriend was dumping kilos of ganja into the casket, a shiny, lacquered newly-made box. That would make his afterlife happy. Never one to shy from excess, Ken would have smiled.

Now Ken was being prepared for his cremation. I wondered if we would all smell the ganja as he was cremated. How could we not?

The large, vacuous room held just the coffin and not much more. A half-dozen people were there, my ex’s kids, his girlfriend, a few more friends, and me.

The English-speaking expat morgue owner, a man who specialized in working with foreigners who died in Cambodia, was kind. He offered to take me in to see Ken, but I knew better. I didn’t need that image in my brain. Been there, done that, have the nightmares to prove it. Seeing my brother after his accident taught me some lessons — it’s best to remember the person as they were.

Then we drove to the cremation temple.

At the pagoda, flowers were everywhere. Giant photos of Ken enshrined in white flowers. Fancy sashes with awkward English in silver glitter — “May him rest in peace.” Giant incense urns, with mourners sitting in front, feet to the side — never pointing to the Buddha. Feet is the dirtiest part of the body in the Buddhist culture; one is to never point them at others.

Noisy women stood near me complaining about Ken’s “murder.” They were sure someone resented their friend’s luck and happiness and had murdered Ken. They seized the quiet of my audience as I spoke about him.

Pheng shushed them.

Had Ken been murdered? Probably not. He had gone to collect money from a guy with a tourist boat — a big wooden vessel with lots of bench seats and an open bar. There was a bit of partying, as was my ex’s way. He may have smoked a joint. He may have taken a shot of something. I don’t know. The boat’s owner said he planned to meet Ken later for dinner.

Ken was there for a while, then he left to get off the boat, a large wooden party boat used for excursions up and down the riverfront of Phnom Penh.

Ken walked to the front of the boat, where he meant to step across to the boat nearest the shore, which had a gangplank down to the sidewalk. He fell into the water and was gone.

At least, that’s the story we were told.

Safety in Cambodia can’t be ignored. When I lived there for nearly ten years, I learned to watch my step. Walking along a sidewalk, it might suddenly disappear and dissolve into a water-filled sewage hole with jagged rebar. No yellow or red tape marked such things.

What I mean is: is you have to be extremely careful in Cambodia, or you can fall and die. And that’s what happened to Ken, I think.

I went to the waterfront the second day I was in Phnom Penh. I wanted to see it for myself and to know what had happened. After examining the two boats side by side, I noticed a tube-like structure that ran along the bow of the boat he was stepping onto. The official term for it is a bulwark.

He may have stepped across and hit that, and would have been thrown backwards into the river. Maybe he stepped on it, and his foot slipped.

Maybe he simply walked off the end of the boat.

Accidents happen.

The night before the funeral, I lay in bed at my hotel, memories overwhelming me as the air-con roared like a jet plane. Two days of casket stuffing and boat sleuthing were taking their toll.

I closed my eyes and my past with Ken rushed forward.

Our time at university, and our first kiss. Our wedding, and climbing Mt. St. Helens on our honeymoon. The way we did everything together, the time we spent. Our travels all over the world.

And then there were the hard times I worked so hard to push away — how he’d deserted me when I was so vulnerable, after losing our babies.

I slept, but it was fitful. When I rose at dawn, I put on the white pants for the funeral and the light-coloured top. This is what we did in Cambodia.

After I spoke at Ken’s ceremony, attended by scores of people, his son and other friends lit the fire for his cremation.

Ken’s son was serious and performed his role well. Then, the company of grievers marched around the giant furnace as smoke began billowing out. I sat on the edge of the platform, suddenly exhausted and overwhelmed.

It was then that I went into a state of shock. It was all too much. I began crying — wailing and sobbing. Pheng put an arm around my waist, holding me up. Then, the company rounded the furnace and marched toward me. I saw the faces of Ken’s girlfriend and children, so lost and sad. So serious. Grieved.

I’ve always been of the school that if you feel like crying, just let it out.

But here — in this crowd of people parading around a giant cremation oven — I felt the grief of a huge community. At that moment, I wasn’t the only person grieving. Ken’s death was a huge loss to many people, as well as the ex-pats who leaned on him for his decades of experience in Cambodia

Employees who counted on him for their salaries.

And his family, who needed him for everything. They were used to living well. Now their provider was gone. I needed to respect this moment for them. This was their great loss, and I honoured that.

If they could hold it together, I could too.

I was Ken’s girlfriend and wife for twelve years. For fifteen more years, we were friends. He’d begged me to move back to Cambodia.

No. Bad idea.

I visited, but to move back and be part of his family? No. Yet, I loved him as a friend.

Later I would cry. Not now.

What would Ken want? What could I do? He would want his children taken care of.

That night after the cremation, I went to the bar and kept an eye on Ken’s kids. They’d spent time in the bar before with the bar owner — Ken’s old friend, a boozy British guy who smoked and drank too much. In Cambodia, children can be in bars, and everyone there looks out for them. Ken’s girlfriend had disappeared.

She was exhausted from days of planning.

I watched over the kids. Ken’s daughter ran a slideshow of photos she and I had compiled. Ken holding a cat. Ken graduated from university with me. Ken and the family visiting and hiking in Oregon. Photo after photo.

Everyone was talking with the kids, feeding them, and watching out for them. I sat at a table keeping an eye on the two. People came and went. Many of the expats were old friends.

At the end of the night, Ken’s driver — also the driver who took the children to and from international school — got the kids in the car. We drove them home, and I went to my hotel. I had been participating in funeral activities for nearly sixteen hours.

The hallway of the Juliana Hotel never felt so long, but the blue swimming pool lit up at night and lit the way to my room. This hotel was my home when I visited Ken and his family. A mid-range hotel, the staff spoke English and were kind to me. I loved swimming with Ken’s daughter when she was tiny; they let me take her without question. I was trusted, and trustworthy.

Now, I was barely in the door of my room and started undressing.

I stripped off the white funeral pants with a dirty hem, peeled off the sweat-soaked top and bra, went into the bathroom, and turned on the shower.

Rivulets of dirt ran off my feet and I pulled my hands through my hair, turning my face up to the cool water.

And that’s when I cried.

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