At a traditional Khmer funeral, a silver or gold coin is often put into the mouth of the dead before the body is cremated. The belief is that this is the only wealth the dead can bring with them to the underworld. This practice is similar to the customs found in Greek, Roman and a variety of Western European cultures where it was believed that the deceased needed to pay the ferryman Charon in order to cross the river Styx to the Afterlife. In Cambodia, however, there is a legend about this tradition, recorded in the Collection of Khmer Folktales.
THE story, which was through generations orally, was about a man who lived with his wife a very long time ago. After working from youth to their old age, the couple had one gold coin for their saving but they did not have a son or daughter to inherit it. Then they decided either one of them would die first, then the other still living had to put the coin into the dead spouse’s mouth before cremation.
After a while, the husband died first. The wife followed his last wish by putting the gold coin in his mouth and then cremated his body. The coin lost a third of its gold in the fire.
One day, the king of the country suddenly wanted more wealth, so he ordered each household to pay a tax of one gold coin, or face punishment. The widowed wife had no choice but to give her burned coin to the king.
“Your Majesty! This used to be a full gold coin, but I had put it in my husband’s mouth when he died. He was not able to take it to the underworld with him, yet the fire took away a part of it. Please show mercy to this poor creature. I do not know how I can find more gold to give you”.
Upon hearing, the king feel a strong sympathy to the old woman, and he gave an order to stop collecting gold from his people. Because of this, people started believing that the silver or gold placed inside the mouth of the dead held sway over people’s minds, even that of a king. Moreover, the gold and silver were also considered sacred objects that can help people in an emergency. Therefore, the practice has been adopted afterward.