Author(s): Dieu-Hien T. Hoang, RN

Community Reviewer(s): Kim Lundgreen; Edited by Scott Beveridge

Date Authored: December 1, 2000

An old Vietnamese man looking down
Photo by Guido da Rozze (cc license).

Phạm Công Sơn, (1996) a Vietnamese anthropologist, said, “Death is not the end but is the final stage of one life to be transformed into another.” He also asserted that death rituals provide the bereaved with a chance to fulfill their filial obligations to the deceased. Because death is usually unexpected, it often leaves family members and friends with unfinished business with the deceased. Since filial responsibilities are weighed heavily in the Vietnamese culture, and proper death rituals according to one’s abilities are important, death rituals give the bereaved a final chance to make it right by the deceased and thus provide a sense of continuity as well as final closure.

Although many death rituals are burdened with rules and can be costly, the long-term effects they may have on participants are far from etherial. The following anecdote detailing the death rituals of a Vietnamese family demonstrates that such rituals can have a therapeutic effect on the dying and bereaved. The details of this example should not be used as representative of all funerary rituals in Vietnam. Variations within the Vietnamese culture occur between regions, religious affiliations, ethnic backgrounds, etc. However, one common principle exists across subgroups: there is intensive and extensive family and community involvement throughout the whole process with the immediate family being gradually weaned off the support of family and friends over a period of 2 to 3 years.

In 1994, my uncle was diagnosed with liver cancer that had spread all over his abdomen. After absorbing the nature of uncle’s prognosis, the family took him home. In the last week, uncle’s condition worsened. Death looked imminent and the family took turns so that someone was at uncle’s bedside at all times. My cousins sent word to all those who were special to uncle to come and say goodbye. All uncle’s grandchildren, ages eighteen months to eleven years, were brought home to see him and remained there.

Close friends and relatives came and went frequently during this last week. Each used their talent to “serve” uncle. Since I am a nurse, I searched all over town for some morphine to relieve his pain. A cousin who is a doctor came daily to take uncle’s blood pressure and give medical advice. An aunt cooked him his favorite dishes while knowing that he might not eat much. Grandchildren showed him how well they did in school. The youngest ones showed him the newest “tricks” that they had learned.

We spent very brief moments with uncle, mindful of his diminishing strength. We spent most of the time with each other. Later, we would reminisce about the events of uncle’s last week and what each surviving family member was able to do for him.

When uncle took his last breath, the crying began gradually as reality started to sink in. All manners of grief were shown; from stoic solemnity to weeping, crying, sobbing and screaming. The only thing not acceptable would have been laughing. All the grandchildren were present and they all cried, even the eighteen month old baby.

After a time, the children were taken away. The family bathed uncle’s body and dressed him in his best outfit. Much love and care was put into making him look presentable. This provided another chance for us to say goodbye.

Uncle was left lying in state at home for several hours to wait for an auspicious time and for the other close friends and relatives to arrive. The family took turns keeping a vigil over the body at all times. An altar was set with a photograph, candles, and incense. Relatives and friends who came to pay their respects stood in front of the altar, burned incense, and quietly said a prayer for uncle or said goodbye, or had whatever private conversation they wished to have with uncle at that moment.

Before uncle was moved into the coffin, a prayer service was held. Before closing the lid of the coffin, the family had another opportunity to see uncle for the last time. Another outpouring of grief occurred since uncle would now be separated from us by a box.

The coffin remained in the family home for three days, and relatives, in-laws, neighbors, and colleagues of my aunt, uncle, and cousins came and paid their respects. Money, flowers, and wreaths were donated according to the guest’s ability and closeness to the family. Food and drinks were served to all as they came. Most stayed at least long enough to say their condolences and chat. Close friends and relatives spent hours or days with the family, helping to cook, organize, direct the flow of visitors, or just chat about good and bad times, about uncle, and about each other. There were tearful moments and also occasional laughter. A family member kept vigil over the coffin at all times.

Removing the coffin from the home was another emotional peak in the ebb and flow of grief. Uncle would be leaving home for the last time. A prayer service was held before we moved the coffin. When this concluded, family and relatives cried and called out for uncle again, saying goodbye yet again.

At the gravesite, another service was held. The coffin was lowered into the grave and buried. Emotions, which had calmed during the service, rose again. Here was yet another chance for mourners to say goodbye, and another outpouring of grief occurred. Most guests left shortly after the burial to return to uncle’s home for the feast.

The closest friends and relatives remained with the family for a quiet time of prayer and contemplation. Just before leaving the gravesite, the family again became very emotional. My aunt, cousins, and the older grandchildren sobbed bitterly and were reluctant to leave the gravesite. This would be the first time since uncle was dying that they left his side. They all said goodbye for the last time.

Before leaving the cemetery, they burned incense and paid their respects at the graves nearby: all our great-grandparents’, grandparents’, aunts’, uncles’ and cousins’. As they went from grave to grave, they felt more at peace with the thought that uncle would be in good company, so to speak.

Back at home, a feast prepared by relatives and neighbors was served. The whole community; family, relatives, friends and neighbors, got together and renewed ties. From the moment of imminent death until the end of the funeral, key relatives and friends stayed at the home and helped organize everything; from cooking and preparing garb to making arrangements. My aunt was consulted on important decisions.

By the time the funeral was over, family members were physically and emotionally spent. But they had ample opportunities to grieve privately during the vigil and publicly with other loved ones. Now they were all “grieved out.” They needed some time to themselves.

Three days after the funeral, the support and intense grieving that they needed returned. The closest relatives and family went back to the cemetery to bring flowers and incense to the gravesite, say more prayers, and clean up the site. We wept and cried and talked to uncle in private.

Then, for the next 49 days, the family held a memorial service every seven days. Again, they shared meals with close friends and relatives and reminisced about events of uncle’s passing as well as everything else in their lives. The next gathering occurred 51 days later, on the 100th day after death, then 265 days later, on the first anniversary of the death; and finally a whole year later. Each memorial forced the family to burden others with their sorrow” so that they could grieve fully. Each successive memorial was held a little less frequently as the family became more able to resume some form of ordinary routine. After the first year, there was the first annual anniversary of the death.

At home, incense was burned on the altar every day to remember and respect uncle. In the first hundred days after the death, food was presented on the altar before each meal. After that, on every special occasion, the ritual of sharing food is repeated: the family invites uncle to enjoy the food that they eat to show he is still a part of their lives.

These are the usual rituals used to honor the dead ancestors. The frequency of the rituals in the first 100 days forced the family to think of and treat uncle as a dead ancestor. It reminded the family that the transition of uncle from being among us to residing with dead ancestors was complete. It reinforced a new social order and also provided opportunities for more private grieving, since inevitably, when offering food to uncle’s spirit, the family remembered what he liked or did not like while living. There were often conversations with uncle, who was symbolized by his photograph on the altar, on these occasions.

After the funeral, family members wore a small piece of black or white fabric on their clothes everyday to signify that they were in mourning. They wore this for two years. At every memorial service, my aunt, cousins, and their children wore the mourning clothes that they wore at the funeral. On the second anniversary, these clothes would be burned to signify that the mourning period was over.

During the mourning period, the bereaved, depending on their relationship to the deceased, are prohibited from marrying or wearing brightly colored clothing. The length of the mourning period depends on the relationship between the deceased and the bereaved. Generally, it is two years for immediate family members. When this formal mourning period is over, it is permissible for the bereaved to plan major life changes such as marriage. The deceased’s memory is not erased and the family still observes the anniversary of the death each year. But life goes on. The transition period for the bereaved has ended. The burning of mourning clothes signifies the incorporation of the bereaved into the normal course of life.

The socially prescribed rituals from the time of death until the end of the mourning period are designed to provide a structure for the grief process. To the bereaved, the image of the deceased as part of this world is still fresh in their minds and recedes itself into another world only gradually. In the first three to five days after death, before the funeral takes place, the bereaved grieve in waves; at times deeply and intensely, with quiet moments to work through their feelings in private and to reconnect and receive social support from family, friends, and the community. Each successive wave of deep public grieving takes the deceased a little farther away from the living; from lying as if a asleep on a cot among family, to being put away in a closed coffin- a symbol of the deceased, to being buried under ground, separated from the family by layers of dirt, and finally, being left behind in the graveyard among the dead. The last stage, leaving the deceased in company of the ancestors, creates a sense of continuity, a feeling that the deceased is actually going somewhere to be among other loved ones.

For Vietnamese, arranging a proper funeral for a loved one is one of the most filial things a person can do (Phạm Công Sơn, 1996). In reality, a culturally proper funeral is more than an empty gesture to the dead, it helps the living to grieve and go on with life. The elaborate details of death rituals require extensive and intensive involvement of the family social network and the whole community. These rituals communicate the social values of communal responsibilities.

However one may choose to interpret death rituals, they constitute a dramatization of a worldly event, death, in the presence of and in reference to the sacred. They formalize a naturally occurring transition from life to death, providing a structure which facilitates the adaptation of the bereaved, whether this means accepting the permanent departure of a loved one from this life, or restoring the balance upset by the death. In a concrete sense, death rituals can also recreate social order by communicating, through the rules of who does what in the rituals, who is now to take the place of the deceased. Death rituals also serve as tools for humankind to transform death from a defeat of life to a stepping stone to another, perhaps better, place, and thus create a continuity beyond death itself. Finally, death rituals give the bereaved one last opportunity to make amends and say “I love you” and “goodbye.”