Journeys of Life and Death main content.

Journeys of Life and Death

Part of the Vietnam exhibition.

Passage Rites

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During a Kinh funeral, close friends or distant kin carry the coffin from the house of the deceased; mourning relatives follow behind.
John Kleinen

If life is a journey, passage ritesinitiations, 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

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In February 2000, Ly Van Hop was initiated into the Daoist sect known as the Three Originators, or Tam Nguyen.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

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

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Pathen bride poses with two of her friends on her wedding day in 1998 in Tan Trinh commune, Ha Giang Province.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

In communities of minority peoples living in northern Vietnamthe Giay, Hmong, Thai, and Yao, among othersthe 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

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A country bride and groom en route to the bride's new home, Tom Nong district, Phu Tho Province.
Per Erikkson

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 nutsgifts 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

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War memorial

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

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Hanoi funeral, 1994. The two men in the center of the photograph are sons.
John Kleinen

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 c