Journeys of Life and Death
If life is a journey, passage rites—initiations, weddings, and funerals— are the way stations that signal transitions from one stage to the next. In Vietnam as elsewhere, these ceremonies are predictable events in the steady unfolding of a life, as inevitable as the change of seasons.
In their details, these ceremonies vary from place to place and ethnic group to ethnic group. Yet often they share a common thread: a physical journey echoes the spiritual transition underway. An initiate inches up a ladder toward heaven; a bride leaves her girlhood behind and walks solemnly toward her future husband's home; the living usher the dead to the netherworld with elaborate processions of mourning. Whatever the occasion and wherever the place, passage rites in Vietnam affirm community bonds and common beliefs.
Ascent to the Gods
The Yao people, who began migrating from China to northern Vietnam about 800 years ago, practice a religion heavily influenced by Daoism, a belief system traceable to China around 600 BC. In the Yao form of Daoism, most boys become initiates of a Daoist sect. During an initiation into the Tam Nguyen sect, which may last several days, a boy's multiple souls journey skyward to gain power from the gods.
At the climax of the initiation, the boy climbs a ladder to a platform, then pitches backward into a net held by ritual masters. His souls remain in the sky, gaining power from the deities, and must be recalled by the ritual masters. At the ritual's end, the youth is considered spiritually reborn and may, with his future wife, join the ancestors in the Yao homeland after death. Such widespread initiation produces a strong community bond that helps explain the survival of this distinctive culture so far from its point of origin.
Mission to the Gods
During the initiation ceremony, the ritual masters invoke several powerful deities to guide and protect the initiate. The masters unroll scrolls bearing the deities' images, hang them in a temporary initiation hut and make appropriate offerings of meat, drink and votive paper to the gods who reside in the paintings.
The temporary hut, the rolled, portable paintings and the initiation of most young men reflect the nomadic history of Yao who have maintained their distinctive culture far from its point of origin.
The Bride's Journey: Weddings of Northern Minority Peoples
In communities of minority peoples living in northern Vietnam—the Giay, Hmong, Thai, and Yao, among others—the bride makes a significant life journey on her wedding day. Escorted by members of both wedding parties, she leaves her own home and joins her new husband's family, bringing with her the household goods needed for her new life. At altars in both houses, a family representative reports the union to the ancestors: first to the bride's ancestors, and then to those of the groom. In each household, the family invites the entire community to join in its celebratory feast.
In the past, these weddings involved many complicated procedures over the course or two or three days, but today's ceremonies may be shorter, less elaborate, and less expensive. In some places, brides and grooms of minority communities have adopted the wedding costumes and rituals of the Kinh majority people.
The Dowry of a Thai Bride
Depending on the wealth of her family, a Thai bride may have a dowry including silver jewelry and money as well as such practical items as a mattress, blankets, pillows, mosquito nets, and clothing. Families begin to assemble the bride's jewelry well in advance of the wedding, and a Thai girl begins the weaving and sewing at age 13 or 14. At her wedding, she will give similar gifts of blankets, mattresses, pillows, and skirts to the matchmakers and to important members of the groom's family.
The Bride's Journey: Weddings of the Kinh People
Among the Kinh people, Vietnam's majority population, wedding arrangements involve multiple journeys by matchmakers and family members. To seal a betrothal, representatives of the groom's family deliver betrothal gifts to the bride's home, carefully arranged on red lacquer trays and in boxes rented for the occasion. At this time an emissary of the groom's family addresses the bride's family, saying, "On this lucky day we would like to offer a small gift to the ancestors, asking them and all of you for permission to make your daughter a child of our family and have our son become a child of your family."
On the wedding day itself, a representative of the groom's family ceremoniously delivers a box of betel leaves, lime, and areca nuts—gifts symbolizing conjugal harmony and fidelity. When the groom's party arrives, the couple pays respects to the bride's ancestors, as they will later do to the groom's. The bride then journeys to her new home, often in a gaily-decorated car.
Wandering ghosts are the unhappy spirits of people who died too young, whose deaths were violent or unexpected, or who died far from home without a proper burial by their families. The need to bring home those who have died far away and to bury them properly is deeply felt. Failure at this task is far more than a bitter personal loss; it condemns the loved one to wander the Earth restlessly for eternity.
Out of pity, people make offerings of food, paper money, and clothing to these wandering ghosts throughout the year, especially on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, when all souls are freed from hell for a day.
This space is an offering to all wandering ghosts, military and civilian, Vietnamese and foreign, who lost their lives in the armed struggles and wars that engulfed Vietnam in the 20th century.
There were those who, enlisted by main force,
Left their beloved to go and serve the state
With water scooped from brooks, rice kept in tubes,
They trudged along rain-swept, wind-beaten trails. . .
Stray bullets and chance arrows smote them down.
Wills-o'-the-wisp, they flutter to and fro
As darkness echoes with their piteous moans.
—Nguyen Du (1764–1820) "Calling all Wandering Souls"
(Translated by Huynh Sanh Thong)
Funeral and Mourning Rituals
Funerals and mourning rituals exist to allow the public expression of private grief. These rites also accomplish the essential spiritual work of sending the dead to the netherworld. For Vietnamese of the Kinh majority, death ends a life, but not a relationship. Ancestors continue to help and protect the family, and families sustain the ancestors with offerings at the household altar.
The procession that carries the deceased from the family home to the grave begins the transition from living family member to ancestor. The immediate family, in full mourning dress and accompanied by other relations in cloth headbands, follows behind the bier or wheeled trolley bearing the casket. In some communities, sons walk beside the head of the father's coffin but backward in front of the mother's coffin. Daughters may be expected to lie on the ground in the path of the casket, but some reject this as an antiquated custom.
Sending Off the Dead: Funerals of the Giarai People
The Giarai people of Vietnam's central highlands send the soul of a deceased family member on a grave-leaving journey to the land of the ancestors. This ceremony may be held many years after death, when families can afford food and drink for a proper feast and when they feel emotionally ready to send the dead away. Until that time, as many as 50 people may be buried in the same tomb, where their spirits are fed and mourned.
To insure a proper send-off, relatives build an ornate grave house over the tomb and erect wooden funeral statues. Delegations from several villages dance around the tomb, accompanied by ensembles of people playing gongs and drums. The mourning families sacrifice dozens of water buffaloes and cows for a feast, and hundreds of jars of wine are consumed, some from the families and some from guests. At the end of the ritual, the deceased has left the village and the mourning period ends.
Tending to the Dead: Cham Funerals
For the Hindu Cham people of the coast of central Vietnam, descendants of the ancient Champa kingdom, the funeral is an elaborate ritual that begins when the deceased draws a last breath. The corpse is given water through the mouth, washed, shrouded, and served a ritual meal. A carefully selected tree is cut and used for the coffin, which is taken to the cremation ground on a richly decorated bier. There, both bier and coffin are placed on a funeral pyre.
Later, some bones are removed and placed in a small box for reburial. Descendants of the same ancestral grandmother rebury their dead together in their common cemetery on an auspicious date. The remains of five to ten members of the same lineage may be interred in the same ceremony. Today, some Cham communities are Muslim with their own distinctive funeral rites.
Ascending to the Sky: Thai Funerals
More than a million Thai people live in Vietnam, mostly in the northwest. Thai funeral customs vary according to the cause of death as well as the age, gender and social position of the deceased. The design of the tall funeral structures called chao pha and heo "trees" erected at the tomb reflects these differences. In the past, only Thai nobility could have funeral trees and cremate their dead.
The trees also create what Thai people call a ghost forest or a village of the spirits. Every Thai funeral may be seen as a journey from home to tomb and from this world to the sky world of the ancestors.
"The chao pha tree is a bridge so that the spirit of the dead can go to heaven and live with the ancestors."
—Mr. Quang Van La, Chau village, Son La Province
Steps in a Thai Funeral
On the first day of the lengthy ritual, the family washes, grooms, and shrouds the body before putting the coffin in the main room of the house and serving the deceased his first meal as an ancestor. On the second day the eldest son-in-law recites stories intended to aid the deceased on the journey to the ancestral homeland.
At the conclusion of the ritual the spirits of the dead are called from the grave to the home, where they take up residence on the ancestral altar. The three-year mourning period ends with a party for kin and neighbors.