P'Chum Ben

Posted on October 25, 2017 by Naomi Washer

In the U.S., Halloween is a spooky holiday full of horror films, scary masks, fake blood, and haunted houses. It takes place at a time of year when many regions of the country are undergoing that seasonal shift from crisp, early autumn to the bare, dark branches welcoming winter. The air turns colder, the wind seems louder, and one can almost hear voices in the air…
But in many countries outside the U.S., this time of year is not as much about how well we can frighten each other as it is about taking the time to commune with one another and honor the cycle of life – birth, death, and return.
Halloween is certainly connected to ideas of death and return, but it manifests in gory images of witches and zombies wandering suburban streets. In other cultures, particularly ones rooted in the many strands of Buddhism, autumn is a time to pause in remembrance for our loved ones who are no longer with us, and gather for meals and services with those who are.
In Cambodia, the holiday P’Chum Ben (which translates to Ancestors’ Day) is a 15-day celebration which takes place at the end of September each year. It is one of the most important holidays in the Cambodian religious calendar. During P’Chum Ben, it is believed that the souls of relatives who have passed away come to the temples (called pagodas) to receive offerings of food and prayers from their living family members. P’Chum Ben is not to be missed, and much time is taken by all to visit the pagodas and to show respect for their relatives and ancestors.
As with the American Halloween, there is one spooky element to P’Chum Ben: it is believed that some of the dead receive punishments for their sins and suffer in hell, far from the sun, with no clothes to wear or food to eat. It is believed that those souls who are suffering have become hungry ghosts whose tiny mouths cannot take in all the food they need. Those who greet spirits at the pagodas believe that the food they bring can be directly transferred to the dead, and some people throw the traditional sticky rice into the fields as a way to reach the ghosts. Ultimately, P’Chum Ben is an opportunity for these spirits to commune with their living relatives by receiving the offerings, and hopefully gaining some relief for their pain.

Photo of a P’Chum Ben celebration in Cambodia, courtesy of pkocambodia.org. Unlike the American tradition of wearing black to a funeral, Cambodians traditionally wear white – a lighter, more celebratory color.

I traveled to Cambodia in high school with a group of students and teachers, to learn about the country’s traditional art forms. On the trip, I developed a strong interest in Cambodian culture and a love for the country’s arts, landscape, and people.
Several years after my trip, a close friend who had also traveled there, and held his experiences in Cambodia close to his heart, unexpectedly passed away exactly one week before his birthday. In my grief, my confusion over why this talented poet, photographer, and humanitarian had died so young, I found solace in our shared connection to Cambodian culture and Buddhist beliefs in karma and reincarnation.
Each year on November 7th, the day Johnny died, I take time to look at his photographs from Cambodia and reread his poems about visiting ancient Khmer temples. A week later, on his birthday, November 14th, I connect with our mutual friends to speak about Johnny and draw attention to the ways he touched so many lives while he was with us, and the ways he continues to make an impact after his death.
No matter your belief system, or what holidays you celebrate when the weather turns cold, autumn is undeniably a good time to gather with friends, family, and loved ones, to celebrate life and others who lived before us. It is a good time to pause and ask yourself what you do believe, what brings you comfort, and how you can bring comfort to others.
Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer. Poem by John Harrity, from a chapbook of poems printed by his family. In the photo, Johnny is playing the chapei, a traditional Khmer instrument similar to a guitar.

Here are some ways you can integrate this attention into your daily life this autumn:

  • Make a meal traditional to your family, culture, and ancestors, and bring it to a gathering of loved ones to share
  • Look through old photo albums of relatives and take the time to learn about their lives
  • Journal about your feelings regarding the loss of your loved ones
  • Build a shrine with photos, candles, and objects for a loved one who has passed on
  • Research the ways other cultures, different from your own, celebrate and honor the lives of their relatives and ancestors
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