Loving Dying and Death Rituals from Vietnam

Other cultures do dying, death and post death way differently than we do here in Canada and the United States – Vietnam is one such culture.

Here is an excerpt from an email a friend visiting Vietnam sent to me the other day.

I will be attending a very sacred ceremony tomorrow night in the middle of the night at that. It is a tradition that when people pass away here (Vietnam), they are buried as normal but then when the body has decomposed about 5 to 8 years they are dug up and then the bones are washed and cleaned, then put into a smaller coffin about 2 ft by 1 ft. Then a reburial ceremony is held with all the family present and only very close family friends present so I feel honored to be allowed to witness this event.

I know it sounds a little creepy but as you know I am not that squeamish. 

The next day we gather for a memorial type service and all family friends are invited.

The service is for Huang’s mother who passed away 8 years ago and that is the main reason Huang is here this year as she was not able to be here 8 years ago when her mom died.”

Though this may sound very messy and squeamish to we North Americans, it shows us all how human and visceral some cultures are when it comes to death care and rituals. They really get their bodies into it which supports full and healthy grieving.

Thanks for the story Ursula.

Here is another piece of a story of the dying and death rituals from Vietnam from the web site; https://ethnomed.org/clinical/end-of-life/death-in-viet It demonstrates the natural and very human approach this Asian culture offers us examples of how we could take back some of the important and human rituals we have contracted out to professionals.

“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.

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.

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. 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 some of the usual rituals used to honor the dead ancestors in the Vietnamese culture.”

You will notice when you re-read this piece how human and hands on the entire process is and how community-based it all is. The involvement of children and neighbors speaks volumes of how death is accepted as a normal and natural facet of everyday life. How grief is accepted as a healthy response to the loss of a loved one.

Find a ritual or two you could add to your own end of life plans.

Warmly and with gratitude

Stephen Adoree’ Jackson Jersey

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