Vietnamese spend far more of their income on funerals than Americans do. This may seem impossible in view of the high costs in the United States, but it is true. A family may use all of its worldly goods that can be transferred into money. In many cases, they may borrow from the various association. If this is not possible, they may go into great debt with “loan sharks” to pay for funerals.
Catholic funerals follow the ritual of the church. In reality, most funerals are Buddhist since a majority of the population follow that or related religions.
The Vietnamese strongly believe that a person should die at home and be surrounded by his family. Vietnamese people believe it is a bad misfortune to die away from home. Therefore, it’s a bad luck to carry a corpse home. Many people are carried to the hospital if they are sick. But if it becomes evident that they will die, they are rushed home with all possible haste so that their demise may be made there.
What to do with a dead body?
The face of the dead person is covered with a white piece of paper or a handkerchief. In fact, this is a symbolic barrier between the dead person and the living one. It also helps to shield visitors from too great an emotional shock.
Often, the deceased person’s mouth is propped open so that visitors may drop in grains of rice and gold coins. The body is generally on a bed under a mosquito net. In some areas, a bunch of bananas are on the stomach of the dead person with the hope of distracting the devil from devouring the dead person’s intestines. Sometimes a knife is placed on the stomach as a weapon against the devil.
Family members wash the body with lotion and dress it in the best clothing. Nails are cut and the trimmings are placed in small packages and attached to the proper hand and foot from which they were cut. At least three years later, when the body is exhumed and the bone transferred from the wooden coffin to an earthenware box for final burial, these clippings will help the people identify the correct bones.
Body in a coffin
Meanwhile, among the more well-to-do, an obituary has been placed in the paper and friends begin to descend on the home. Among the poor people, the sad news is transmitted by word of mouth.
In the past, caskets were often bought ahead of time, and in mountain areas, the coffin is used in the house as a bench. In towns and cities, this practice has been abandoned.
During olden days, the body was kept in the home for as long as six months, sealed inside the casket. Currently, the body is kept at home about a week or less.
Sometimes, coffins are temporarily buried in the gardens to discourage thieves from robbing the valuables inside. In the case of young virgin girls, the burial place is often nearby the home so that it can be watched. Some rural people believe that the head of a virgin girl is very valuable and may be conserved and turned into the most powerful and omnipotent talisman through special ceremonies. Persons who have the talisman are believed to be omnipotent and invulnerable.
Before the body is placed in the coffin, it is wrapped in strips of cloth and a white silk shroud. The body is wedged in the coffin with red branches, paper, and other objects. This helps keep the body in place as it decomposes. Embalming is not widely practised. A bowl of uncooked rice is placed on the lid of a coffin by many families. They believe that this will keep the dead body from arising. The coffin should be attended constantly to keep any dog or cat from jumping over it, as it is believed that if this happens, the body will be revived temporarily and behave erratically, scaring those present.
The family then gathered before the special altar which has been erected for the dead person and make offerings of food for the dead person’s soul. This usually is three bowls of rice, three cups of tea, and a few other special dishes. In North Vietnam, it may be different–one bowl of rice, one cup of water, a boiled egg, and a bundle of joss sticks planted in a bowl of uncooked rice and surrounded by lightened candles. This ceremony is supposed to be repeated three times a day during the entire mourning period, but in recent years, the time of this offering has been reduced to an acceptable 100 days.
Dressing in mourning clothes is also a ritual. If there is a wedding planned in the family, it should be quietly attended to before the ceremony of handing out the mourning clothes. Otherwise, custom dictates that the wedding must be postponed until the end of the mourning period.
The mourning period is three years for wives, children, daughter-in-laws, and adopted children of the deceased man and only one year by husband’s, son-in-laws, brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren of a woman. Nine months is the time of mourning for cousins on the father’s side, and five months by cousins on the mother’s side.
While in mourning, Vietnamese do not usually visit temples and pagodas, festivals, parties, and other entertainments. They also normally delay marriages and do not wear bright coloured clothing. A black band is worn on the arm by men in mourning and a small black piece of material is worn on the dress of women mourners after the funeral for the entire mourning period.
The ceremony of distribution of the mourning garb is carried out by monks or the eldest son of the deceased who leads the rite. Offerings are made and symbolic votive papers are burned. The mourning garb is made of a very low-grade white gauze and looks as if it may fall off of the person wearing it. Turbans are carelessly wrapped around the head with straw crowns and a sash placed on top of this. Mourners use walking sticks made of bamboo and act as though they are groping their way along and would fall without the stick’s support. The carelessness of dress and the groping walk are indications of how to overcome the mourners are.
Only after the distribution of mourning garb do the presentations of condolences begin. At this time, friends may bring or send gifts to the deceased’s family as an offering to the dead member. Sometimes in rural areas, this gift consists of money.
Wreaths have begun to be popular in the cities. They write the name of the person sending them is large letters, and a sympathy message is written on a ribbon encircling the wreath.
The Funeral Procession
One of the main expenses of the funeral comes at this point. Many special funeral accoutrements are needed. They may sometimes be borrowed from a community benevolent association, in the case of poor people. Musicians must be hired, numerous attendants are necessary and a huge ten-foot high hearse painted with many dragons and other figures are used. A family will occasionally hire extra mourners to walk in the procession to indicate that the deceased was well thought of. Huge displays of expensive food including whole pigs and gelatine fruits, etc. are placed on tables and carried by bearers.
Buddhist monks, sometimes carried in a hammock, lead the procession. He is usually followed by a group of old ladies carrying long pieces of cloth above their heads. Banner carriers move alongside them reciting prayers and holding up their banners written about the deceased, for all to read. Next, comes the altar, also borne by carriers. On it will be placed a picture of the deceased, two peanut oil lamps, candlesticks, incense burners, and flowers.
Next, comes the offerings of food; roasted pig, sugar cakes, rice, gelatine fruits, wine in urns, etc.
Bringing the dead person to bury
Following that is the hearse which is pulled by four to eight persons. In olden days, the coffin was often covered by expensive votive papers in the form of a house. Some of the hearses are motorized in the cities.
After the hearse, the family, led by the eldest son, relatives, and friends follow behind, usually walking. The family is always crying loudly and lamenting in loud tearful voices their praise of the dead person, his virtues, and his accomplishments. Sometimes they cry over what they might have done for the deceased. Their voices, mixed in with the music from the professional musicians playing wind and string instruments and trumpets produce a soulful sound. To Western ears, it sounds more like screeching. The music is chosen especially for the deceased as they have different songs to fit different circumstances.
Acquaintances walk behind this group, remaining fairly silent, exchanging a few words here and there about the life of the dead person. Friends born in the same year as the deceased rarely attend the funeral lest they also have very bad luck or even die. In the case of a wealthy person or a well-known one, large numbers of cyclos carrying flowers trail after these mourners. Along the route, golden votive papers are scattered as symbolic money for the dead person to use in heaven.
When the body reaches its resting place and is about to be placed in the grave, the wailing and crying grow even more soulful. In addition, close relatives often fight frenziedly with the bearers of the coffin to prevent them from burying their loved one.
The eldest son, the monk, or funeral attendants throw a symbolic handful of dirt into the grave. Then they pass on their respects to the rest of the family. Relatives leave the grave but wait a short distance away until the grave is completely covered before they go home.
In rural areas, there is a custom of preparing a large meal for all friends and acquaintances who have participated in the funeral or sent a gift.
Later, a special altar that had been previously set up for the dead member is lighted with candles continuously and incense sticks burned for 100 days.
Regular ceremonies are held for the dead person after that time, especially on the death anniversary, the lunar New Year Period (Tet) and often on the 1st and 15th days of each lunar month.
Families normally have a special dinner on the 49th and 100th day after the death and also on the first anniversary. They may have a dinner every year after that on the death anniversary.
When the body is exhumed three years later. The bones are cleaned and re-arranged in proper order and reburied in a small earthenware coffin. Normally, only relatives and close friends are in attendance, and there is no special social gathering.
Other Popular Customs, Traditions And Rites In Vietnamese Daily Life
– Greeting People
– Taboos in Personal Relationships
– Confusing Personal Traits of Vietnamese
– Superstitions, Very Popular In Vietnam & Asia
– Hospitality, Different Way (Oriental)
– Marriage, Wedding
– Pregnancy And Birth