vietnamese funeral
Culture, Customs, and Etiquette

Should You Cry or Laugh at a Vietnamese Funeral?

To answer this interesting question, this is the ultimate guide for attending funerals at two distinctive regions of Vietnam – the North and the South

The North

The differences in topographic structure, climate, population distribution, and cultural backgrounds, have a significant impact on the formation of each region’s customs and traditions, especially funerals, burials, and ceremonial offerings.

Unlike the Southerners who often make light of funerals and have an open mind about the afterlife, the Northerners always focus on the regret and sorrow part of a funeral.

Death means the end of everything so the funerals in the North are often covered with a vividly mournful atmosphere. Although going through several “innovations”, burials retain their original rituals and customs, which have played an important part in the development of Vietnamese history and culture.

“Cleaning” ceremony (Lễ mộc dục)

One of the most crucial ceremonies before holding a mourning is the ritual of cleaning the dead body. Basically, this ritual concentrates on family members taking care of the body of the dead before placing them in their coffin.

If the dead person in the family is the father, the eldest son will be responsible for looking after his father’s body. If the deceased is the mother, the eldest daughter will fulfill the responsibility. The family bathes the dead’s body in warm water scented with aromatic herbs. Afterwards, they use a dry square kerchief to wipe the body clean. Besides, the hair of the dead is carefully combed and neatly tied with a silk string.

At the same time, their toenails and fingernails are cut, put into a handkerchief and buried with them, along with other already-used cleaning tools.

 “Closing-mouth” ceremony (Lễ ngậm hàm)

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, “Lễ ngậm hàm” remains an indispensable part of a traditional funeral with the purpose of preparing a smooth journey to the afterlife without the interference of evil spirits.

In order to perform this ritual, the family uses fresh sticky rice and three golden coins and fills in the left, right, and center of the dead’s mouth. After that, the dead’s mouth is closed again and their face is covered with a white cloth. In other Northern regions, people have the tendency to bury with the deceased their favorite and often used items to assist them in their afterlife.

“Entering the coffin” ceremony (Lễ Nhập Quan)

The-despair-at-an-Entering-coffin-ceremony

The despair at an “Entering coffin” ceremony (Source: Google)

When holding the ceremony, the family needs to prepare a rice bowl in which two eggs are placed in the middle and between a pair of straight-up chopsticks, along with a bunch of banana.

According to ancient beliefs, rice and egg are offered to remember good deeds of the loved ones that pass away, represent the Earth and the Sky, as well as the balance between Yin and Yang. Banana, which is believed to have Yin feature, is used for seeing the “Yin” of the dead off.

Other necessary notes of participating in funerals in the North

  • A person with the same age as the deceased should not show up to avoid being mentally possessed.
  • Pregnant women should stay away during the “Coffin entering” ceremony (Lễ nhập quan)
  • Avoid shedding tear onto the deceased’s body when it is being placed in the coffin because it is considered bad omens to their children’s success in the future.
  • For those who die at unlucky hours, apart from spiritual things pasted on the coffin’s lid, a red calendar is put inside to suppress the devils.

The South

Unlike funerals in the North, the Southerners organize theirs with a totally contrasting method and belief, which contributes greatly to the uniqueness and diversity of Vietnamese history and culture.

The funeral’s atmosphere

Entertaining-activities-at-a-funeral-in-the-South

Entertaining activities at a funeral in the South (Source: Google)

This aspect can be considered the most different that distinguishes between funerals in the North and South. While the North’s burials are carried out in a slow pace and a sorrowful atmosphere, the South’s ones are “notorious” for having a vibrant and noisy crowd.

Furthermore, in recent years, a great number of families hire funeral services to arrange many entertaining activities such as magic performance, animal circus or even gambling.

Rarely is the image of children of the dead mourning and crying heartedly seen in the South. The Southerners attend the funerals in a comfortable and relaxing way and believe the death is only a matter of course. In their mind, death means a new beginning of a better life in a better world. The grief and despair is believed to bother the dead and interfere with their afterlife’s journey.

Eating habit

Eating custom also presents an outstanding difference in burials between the North and South. Being a guest at a funeral in the North, you are always treated generously with a big “feast” full of delicious food.

In contrast, Southerners simple prepare several types of cakes and water for the guests to enjoy while sitting and having a sympathetic chat with the family.

 “Living with graves”

Graves-were-built-right-beside-houses-and-living-areas

Graves were built right beside houses and living areas (Source: Google)

Heading to the Southwest of Vietnam to witness another impressive highlight in Vietnamese history and culture, which is “living together with graves”.

There is a significant number of the dead’s tomb built near or right inside gardens of the living who has close relationship with the dead. Although receiving many objections relating to negative impacts on the environment, this special custom has a strong attachment to the local lifestyle. Therefore, whenever moving places, local people often find it hard to leave their loved ones behind.

Modern innovations

The more modern the society becomes, the more unreasonable and lengthy rituals should be cut off, especially the custom mentioned above “Living together with graves”, which not only affects people mentally but also being inconvenient when moving houses.

In addition, a full package of funeral service with an affordable price will be of great assistance in preparing necessary items for the funeral.

“Old age” coffin

In the past, some wealthy families in the rural South of Vietnam tended to purchase “Old age” coffin with the expectation that their grandparents would live long with their children. These coffins were placed right on the porch or even next to the bed or cabinet.

Skip the scary part of sleeping next to a coffin (even though it’s empty), “Old age” coffin expresses the optimism of Southerners with the death and gratitude towards their grandparents.

Spread of real money and joss paper on the way to send off the deceased

Scattering real money and joss paper on the way to send off the dead has long become a funeral ritual of both the South and North. When the carriage of the coffin leaves the house, the family members of the loved one hold a stack of votive paper and real money with the denomination of 1,000 – 5,000 VND and spread them out on the street.

In addition, people carefully tuck a stack of money in the deceased’s pocket or even put gold or rice grains in their mouth in order to pay their expenses on the journey to their next life. However, this habit poses a great risk for the commuters. There were cases that several pedestrians did not hesitate to stop their car and scramble as much money as possible despite the dangers of many vehicles circulating on the road.

Although many people believe that the act of spreading money in a funeral is too costly, while violating the law and putting others in danger, as well as causing social aversion, this custom still plays a crucial part in organizing a traditional funeral.

A wedding inside a funeral

It seems wrong to say that “a funeral is even happier and more fun than a wedding” but this is the real case that takes place in many areas of Vietnam. While a wedding only lasts until midnight, a funeral is bound to continue for the whole night. The longer the funeral is, the longer the surrounding neighborhoods have to endure the endless torture of noise until 2-3 am on the next day.

That is the concept and belief of the South that burials are meant to be fun and noisy so that the dead would be able to rest in peace and not bothered by the family’s sorrow. Despite the true and beautiful meaning of the belief of organizing a “happy” funeral, the overwhelming and extreme scenes at many funerals nowadays can come off as disturbing.

In reality, a significant number of families pay a huge sum of money to hire gay people singing and dancing ridiculously before the coffin, which is found unacceptable by many people. Besides, performing with fire or dancing in bikinis in a funeral, which contributes greatly to turn a funeral into a mobile bar or disco, send a signal of serious moral decadency.

There are major and outstanding dissimilarities of organizing a funeral in the North and the South, highlighting the uniqueness and variety of Vietnam history and culture. Furthermore, the offensive and excessive behaviors in a funeral should be strictly removed to retain the best customs of Vietnamese funerals.

Tuong Vi

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