My father’s side of the family is of the Catholic faith. When I visited his hometown, churches infested the towns and altars displayed figurines of the Lord Jesus Christ.
However, my mother’s side of the family is of the Buddhist faith (I don’t know which sect). With that said, I did not fully comprehend the ceremonies for my grandma’s funeral. I apologize beforehand if I do not accurately name the ceremony, personnel, or artifact.
Day 1: After a three-hour journey in from Da Nang, we arrived in my mom’s hometown of Thuan An, a small island in Hue province. I was exhausted and thus had a very difficult time waking up this first day. Mother coerced me out of bed and hurried me to get ready. Everyone was to wear formal (for Vietnam’s standards) clothes – a white buttoned-down shirt with black slacks. I was also going to put on a black tie as well but some lady told me not too. Apparently it’s a fine balance between “formal” and “funeral formal”. In the background, they have converted the piece-wise granite front yard to a banquet room complete with round dining tables on one end to greet guests, raised squared tables on the other end for the local male elders, and a prayer aisle in the center.
I could not stand going into grandma’s room. It was not the emotional barrier that prevented me from doing so, but rather the overwhelming stench and sting of formaldehyde that stank the room. Standing by the door, I watched the process of redressing grandma in new white clothes, stuffing her with real cash (USD and VND), and putting make-up on her. The cash that was to be buried with her is for her to use in the underworld. (Yes, the call the place where people die the “underworld” in Vietnamese rather than “heaven” or “another world”.) Finally, they dressed her in a beautiful golden ao dai, then placed a golden sheet of silk over her entire body.
Prayers were constant for the next five days. Chanting, bowing, and forming prayer hands occurred throughout the day.
The Buddhist monks arrived. So we prayed and chanted. It was in Vietnamese, but in a prayer melody so it was even harder for me to understand. My father said that they would also chant in “ancient Vietnamese”, a language that he doesn’t even understand. What I think that we are praying for is a safe journey for grandma as she goes to the underworld.
Then, they carried grandma to her coffin. This was a very emotional scene. Immediately, my mom and aunts dropped to the floor in tears and screams. Nieces, in-laws, wives and some men sobbed tremendously. Once they placed her in the coffin, they literally poured in tea, money, clothes, food, and some of grandma’s belongings into the coffin with her so as to make sure that she has everything she needs to survive in the underworld. They sealed the coffin up with a cement-like paste and then they tied the entire unit up. It will remain in the center of the living room for the next five days before she will be carried off to her grave.
Now that grandma is no longer with us visibly, everyone who is of kin changes out into the traditional funeral clothes – pure white. In America, we tend to wear black to show that we are mourning and white is reserved for holy (and happy) ceremonies like Christmas and weddings. However, in the East white represents death because it is drained of color. The color of weddings tends to be red as it is lively, also representing blood and life. Confusingly, great-grandchildren on the son’s side of the deceased mother wear red while those on the daughter’s side wear yellow. I have yet to find out the symbolism for this.
A high Buddhist priest (equivalent to a Bishop) walked down the center aisle that we lined with family members. He commenced the first funeral ceremony. Unlike the plain robes worn by the other monks, he was decorated with golden silken robes, necklaces, and a colorful hat. Even his prayer beads were pretty fly. After about an hour of kneeling, standing, bowing, and praying, we received our white headbands, another symbol to show that we were mourning grandma’s death. The conclusion of this prayer ceremony ended with the family members, in triplets, approaching grandma’s altar and bowing to her two times.
Day 2, 3: Before every meal, all family members reconvened on the mats to pray for an hour. Oddly, it did not seem that long to me. Unlike Catholic mass where I checked my watch often to see the remaining time, the prayers here quickly passed. I believe that it is partly because it is done at home and so there are no real strict protocols – if I wanted to get up and leave in the middle of a prayer, I could! Also, it was all so new to me I spent the majority of my time making ethnographic observations, constantly asking myself, “Why are they doing this? What are they saying? What does this mean?”
Throughout the wake, family and friends visited. The process started with registration, where they signed in, donated some money (I couldn’t find out the typical value but it ranges from 20,000d [~$1] to 100,000d for Vietnamese nationals and a lot more for Vietnamese Americans sending gifts home from abroad), and gifted incense and sometimes flowers, fruits, or cake. Really close family and friends also donated red velvet banners. There was an emcee present throughout the entire process to announce the name of the donors. Then they would bow to the statue of Amitabha and again in front of grandma’s shrine. Inside the house facing outward, my family members bowed in turn to thank the guests for their time and contributions. The guests would then be invited to sit at a table for some bottled water, coffee or tea, and a smoke if they wish.
Day 4: The morning of this day proceeded as usual with morning prayers and a prayer before breakfast. Then came the sacrificial prayer. An altar was set up towards the entrance of the home, facing inward. A picture of some Buddhist guardian deity, whose face was ferocious and body adorn in armor, stood center of the table. Gifts of rice, sweet cakes, fruits, fake money, and other miscellaneous items were placed on and around the table. This ceremony included the monk blessing a bottle of water, pouring it into a bucket with large live fishes then some men took the bucket away to release the fishes into the nearby ocean. Then came a bizarre scene. Outside the entrance of the house stood several “bouncers” who prevented nearby vagabonds from trespassing. The blessed foods and gifts were then thrown onto the street where a crowd of around 50 children and adults ages 5 to 60+ desperately fought each other for a papaya or small sack of rice. It was pitiful to witness. I did not know why we had to dump it on the streets rather than hand it out and I watched a scene of an old lady holding onto a bag of goodies for dear life as the children and other adults tried to pry it from her, pulling on her neck. I even so some kids throwing punches. The fake money and colored paper were burned.
The last evening had the second to the most important ceremony after the burial ceremony. The high Buddhist monk returned and after prayers and encircling grandma’s coffin with candles, he gave his speech. Because of his rank, I saw many neighbors crowd the fence and entrance of our home to hear him speak. He lectured on the important role of a mother and her sacrifices. It brought many of us to tears. The high monk left then it was the intimate family send-off ceremony. From the order of their birth, grandma’s children (my uncle, aunts, and mom) took turns as they made their final offerings to grandma in the form of some food and alcohol and gave a farewell speech. My uncle, usually stoic, broke down in the beginning of his speech and my father continued to read his words to the attending audience.
Day 5: At 3AM, the rolling thunderstorms woke me up. The heavy raindrops pitter-pattered the metal tin roof above me. I fell in and out of sleep for the next two hours for we all needed to get up at 5AM for the burial ceremony. Sadly, it has been raining nonstop since last night and the weather had no intention of clearing up anytime soon. I got dressed in my white garb. Our yard was splashed wet with the foot traffic of people walking in from the flooded road. The set up crew tried to remedy our prayer aisle by placing a mat down but that too quickly got wet. The Buddhist monks came and we prayed, bowing on the wet floor and drenching our garb. They cleared out the altars and in came the crew of men who were to carry off grandma’s body. They performed a dance like that of a dragon. The leader held lit candlesticks as the successive men followed in a snakelike pattern. After feeling the drench, I stopped caring about the rain. Everyone, all my family members, the Buddhist monks, neighbors, and friends proceeded down our road to the main road (~1 km) as we ritualistically carried off grandma. We loaded her on to a highly ornate hearse, decked with golden dragons and all. In a fleet of about 15 vehicles (buses, vans, and trucks) drove for 1 hour at the pace of around 30 km per hour (~20 mph). We chauffeured all the donated banners, flowers, and guests who were to see grandma off. If it were sunny, these flowers would have decorated the vans and buses and the banners would have been flown high.
Into a land of white sand, my grandma’s grave awaited her coffin. The monks blessed the grounds and we prayed some more. Once the body was lowered into the grave, my family members broke out into hysteria again as we acknowledge that grandma will no longer reside at her home in Thuan An, Hue. My aunt had to be pulled away as they piled sand on top of grandma’s grave.
I thought that it was odd that we used sand to bury her. I recall that in the states we bury our loved ones in dirt so that they can rejoin the Earth. In Vietnam, preservation is coveted so that is why the doctor used so much formaldehyde and the sand will be mixed with cement. It was an eye-opening, yet overwhelming experience to have been a part of my grandma’s traditional Vietnamese-Buddhist funeral. The prayers do not end here; on days 7, 14, 21, 49, and 100, family members in Thuan An will continue to pray for grandma’s safe journey to the underworld.