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Vietnamese Funerals: Traditions & Customs Explained

To Vietnamese, the passing of a person is as important as his birth. It marks the end of a lifetime and premises a good beginning of the next life. A proper funeral lets the person rest in peace and comforts his grieving family. Wondering what rituals will take place in a Vietnamese funeral? Let us share it with you in this article.

Rituals of a Vietnamese Funeral

“Cleansing” of the Deceased’s Body

As soon as the family is certain their loved one is no longer alive, the “cleansing” ritual starts. First, the body is cleaned using a towel with water infused with fragrant leaves and rice wine. Then, nails are clipped, and the body is dressed in new clothes. After that, the family will cover the deceased’s face with a white sheet and light up candles next to where he or she rests.

All belongings of the deceased will be burnt for him or her to use in the afterlife. Meanwhile, family members announce the passing of their loved one to relatives and friends.

Setting up the Altar

As strange as it sounds, the family will ask a monk or a fortune teller for a “good” hour to bury their loved one. This ensures the deceased an easy journey to eternity. Also, it prevents the dead from coming back to haunt the living. While waiting for the update, the family proceeds to set up an altar for the dead. The usual décor is a banana bunch, a pomelo, seasonal fruits, and a picture frame of the deceased.

Hiring a Funeral Music Band

While setting up the altar, a family member will take care of hiring a music band to play at the funeral. The idea behind this “cheerful” act is that music can comfort the deceased on the way to hell. Also, the gloomy sound reminds the family of the passing of their loved one. A typical funeral music band includes trumpet, drum, and Vietnamese two-chord fiddle playing.

Entering the Coffin

In the early morning, the music band starts playing and cues the funeral to begin. The family will lay the body in the coffin, then put in tea bags to prevent odor and humidity.

Once the body is inside the coffin, a monk or a shaman will offer prayers, surrounded by the family. Meanwhile, a family member will block off evil spirits by marking each corner of the coffin with a knife.

Summoning the Deceased’s Soul

Vietnamese believe a person’s soul wanders after death. To make sure the soul finds its coffin, the monk or the shaman will wave the deceased’s shirt towards four directions while saying out loud ba hồn bảy vía (for male) or ba hồn chín vía (for female). Then, placing the shirt back into the coffin to complete the ritual.

Offering Prayers for the Deceased

After the summoning rite, the eldest child in the family hands out funeral outfits for family members. Traditionally, children of the deceased dress in white gauze clothes and matching hats. The grandchildren and relatives only wear white or yellow cotton headband.

All will stay close to the coffin and commemorate the deceased. After that, friends and neighbors come to light up incense, offer prayers, and take a last look at the deceased’s face.

family members in funeral costume during pray
photo credit itourvn.com

Offering Condolence Gifts

Arriving at a funeral empty-handed is not a good gesture. Thus, individuals or groups often show up with packs of incense sticks and “sympathy” money. A nice funeral flower stand is also a great choice.

Dinner for the Deceased

As day eases into night, the family will prepare a hearty dinner for the deceased’s altar. Meanwhile, the music band changes to another tune to commemorate the pass-away.

Turning the Coffin

At midnight, the family performs another ritual called lễ quay cữu or “the turn”. Strong family members will turn the coffin in a way that its head faces the altar and its end faces the door.

The Last Food Offering

The next morning comes signifying it’s time for the procession. First, the family will offer a simple meal to the deceased’s altar. A bowl of rice, a boiled egg, a small plate of salt, and a small cup of water are what they need to prepare. Mournful tunes start once again to mark the deceased’s final moments with family at home.

The Funeral Procession

The family’s representative reads out loud a eulogy for the dead, followed by closing the coffin. Then, the head of the family will thank guests and ask them to join the procession to the final resting place.

A car adorned with funeral flags and flower arrangements leads the entourage. The funeral music band follows with bittersweet melodies then comes family and guests. During the journey, a family member will scatter paper effigy (paper gold bars) to lead the way for the deceased. According to the locals’ belief, the soul may get lost without this trace.

Vietnamese funeral procession
photo credit © Jimmy Tran

The Burial Ceremony

Once a taboo in the past, cremation is as popular as burying these days. Regardless of methods, the person’s eternal home is often at a cemetery. Once the coffin is about two meters underground, the family will bid adieu to the deceased and leave.

Offering Food for Guests

When back from the procession, the family will invite guests to lunch or dinner to show gratitude. In the past, family members prepared the food themselves. But now, people often call up a service to help with it.

Post-Funeral Rituals

The family will light up incense at the altar daily and continue with three more rituals:

  • A vegetarian food offering every day for the first seven days
  • 49th day death anniversary with a food offering and a small party
  • 100th day death anniversary with a food offering and a small party

Dos and Don’ts in a Vietnamese Funeral

Without etiquette, a guest may come off as insensitive at a Vietnamese funeral. To avoid that, let’s check out several dos and don’ts below:

Dos

  • Wear black
  • Offer condolences to the deceased’s family
  • Enjoy tea and food when invited
  • Bring a gift such as white flowers. The most suitable are white lotus flowers as it symbolises purification.

Don’ts

  • Let dogs, cats, or mice jump over the coffin
  • Talk or laugh out loud
  • Cry too much or let tears fall on to the deceased’s body
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