In the Hmong culture a death is an extremely important event, and the funerals are the most sacred of the Hmong rituals. Their goal is to guide the soul of the deceased back to their ancestors in the spirit world.
Hmong culture in Vietnam
“More wine?” we couldn’t understand the language but clearly understood the message. Without even saying a word, our glasses are constantly filled with the rice wine, a ubiquitous drink of Vietnam. People around are laughing, plying cards and cheerfully talking to each other.
A wedding? No, we are at the funeral of the Hmong ethnic minority in Mu Cang Chai in the North of Vietnam.
Death is a very important event In the Hmong culture, and the funerals are the most sacred of the Hmong rituals.
Their goal is to guide the soul of the deceased person to the spirit world to ask for a good reincarnation so that the person is reborn into the same family.
The Hmong believe that when a person dies, his soul must first return to his birthplace and then travel to the afterlife to meet his ancestors before getting reincarnated.
In the Hmong culture, to ensure that the spirit could make it back to the spirit world, the funerals rituals must be closely respected. Otherwise, the spirit could cause harm to the family and the relatives.
If the funeral rituals aren’t properly conducted, the soul of the deceased will roam for eternity or will get reincarnated in a lesser form such as animals, plants, rocks etc.
Traditionally, the Hmong funerals last up to twelve days, however, today they usually last three days.
In the past, the length of the funeral was determined by many factors such as choosing an auspicious day for the burial or the way the person has died. The funeral of infants and victims, for example, is traditionally conducted in a hurry and with little fuss as it’s believed that these deaths create negative spirits.
When a person dies, the body is bathed and dressed in burial clothes prepared in advance for this occasion. The body is kept inside the house for three days.
The body is not buried until the soul of the deceased receives the special guidance of how to make the safe passage to the afterlife. Only after that the funeral ceremony can start and the body can be buried.
This ritual is performed by an old man belonging to the family of the deceased. For about three hours he talks to the spirit of the deceased and gives all required explanations so that the spirit can safely proceed to the afterlife to meet his ancestors.
Once the guidance has been provided, the preparation for the burial can start.
If the deceased is an old person, a buffalo, a very valuable animal for the Hmong, is sacrificed. Otherwise, it can be pigs and chicken. The Hmong believe that the sacrificed animals will guide the deceased’s spirit on his journey to the afterlife.
As part of the funeral ritual, animals are sacrificed as offering to the spirit of the deceased and served to the guests, usually, the entire village.
As part of the Hmong funeral ceremony, everybody present at the funeral wears a white headband on the head, a sign of the funeral.
Music is important for guaranteeing the safe passage to the afterlife. The traditional Hmong drum is beaten at the funeral as well as the flute-like instrument made of bamboo and known as the “qeej”. The goal is to help guide the deceased person’s spirit to its ancestral home.
The body is removed from the house in a coffin and the funeral procession goes to the burial ground. A person in front of the procession is holding a torch used to “light” the way for the deceased person.
The funeral procession consists only of men. Not because of the special taboo, but simply because the women are scared of the evil spirits present around when there is a death.
The men taking part in the procession try to confuse the evil spirits. They frequently stop, sometimes change directions and get rid of the torch before reaching the burial site.
The traditional burial site is on top of the mountain and is determined by older members of the community. The location of the burial site is important and depends on status of the deceased, as well as the age and sex.
The family members dig the grave and the body dressed in the burial clothes is placed facing west as the Hmong believe that west is the direction of death.
The family members put clothes in the casket together with other items such as a bottle of rice wine, a bag of rice, cooked chicken, a knife etc. to provide the deceased person with food and all the necessary items for his journey to the afterlife.
Instead of flowers seen at the funerals in many countries, at the Hmong funeral the guests offer donations to help the family cover the costs of the funeral. The funerals are a costly affair, and all the members of the extended family make their contributions. Despite the Hmong low income in Vietnam, the funeral usually costs USD 1,500 and more. The simple wooden coffin itself costs about USD 400-600.
The Hmong culture is based on animalistic beliefs. Similar to the Buddhists, the Hmong believe that the soul of the deceased reincarnates in a different form depending on how the deceased person has lived his life. The reincarnation can take many forms such as humans if a person lived in an ethical way or otherwise, animals, insects, plants, rocks etc.
Given their belief in reincarnation, the relatives of the deceased and the guests are not allowed to show signs of distress during the burial time.
You won’t see anyone crying at the burial site. If people cry, the soul of the deceased person will get lost and won’t be able to reincarnate. After all, for the Hmong the whole funeral ceremony is not about death but rather about reincarnation – about the soul’s rebirth and beginning of a new life.
Once all the items required for the passage to the afterlife are put in the casket by the head of the deceased, it’s placed underground and covered with earth.
Three days later the men return to the burial site to build a proper grave. Traditionally, Hmong graves represent a mound of earth covered with boulders and tree branches to protect it against animals. Sometimes a wooden fence around the grave is built as well. The type of the grave depends on the clan’s funeral tradition.
After the body has been buried, the family of the deceased invite the family members and the guests for a feast.
As it’s taboo to show distress, people are laughing, playing cards, drinking, smoking, eating and cheerfully talking to each other.
Everyone enjoys the feast, and the meat of the buffalo scarified at the funeral is shared among the family and the guests.
Rice wine is flowing around contributing to the atmosphere. The glass is hardly finished, when someone is pouring a new one. After having emptied the glass, people shake hands looking at each other’s eyes. “Cheers” in Hmong language is heard everywhere.
The Hmong don’t have one unique way of performing the funeral rituals. The rituals vary from place to place among the Hmong communities. However, they all have many common characteristics and have a goal of guiding the soul of the deceased back to their ancestors in the spirit world.
Hmong culture has been around for thousands of years. Although it remains quite strong, some rituals have changed or disappeared due to the modern influence.
“More wine?” an old man is winking and giving us a conspirative smile. We don’t even have time to reply when our glasses are filled again. And once the glass is full, everybody considers his own duty to ensure we drink it in one gulp. “More wine?” we hear from the distance trying to make it back home safe.