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23 May 2020

Viet Nam - funeral culture

Looking at the map of Viet Nam, it is clear that it is an S-shaped country, extending vertically for over 2000 km. This quite significantly affects the climate but also causes cultural differences. Interesting location. When we observe four seasons in the north, we have a tropical summer all year round in the south.

You probably already know (if not yet, I just inform you) that Viet Nam is a Buddhist country. 34%! It is true that Vietnamese Buddhism is slightly different from Thai or Chinese Buddhism, but Buddhists make up the strong society. There are 44% of Catholics and 22% of other religions (non-believers,Muslims, Hindi and Vishnu).

One of the noticeable cultural differences is the approach to the rites related to the burial of the dead. I would like to share this observation with you today. It will therefore be about differences in funeral culture.

The first significant difference between Viet Nam and the rest of the world (especially Europe and North America) is the approach to the farewell celebration.

What I can say at the beginning is the fact that both in Viet Nam and around the world, death and funeral are an unpleasant event. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, as the Latin sentence says. Life is a moment, art is an eternity.

In contrast, the funeral ceremony itself, the climate of the family meeting after the funeral and what happens during the year after the funeral differ from those in other parts of the world and moreover, they are different in the north and south of Viet Nam.

Up to a point, the north and south traditions are very similar, i.e. generally, the funeral ceremony and wake are similar throughout Viet Nam. There is a ceremony in the temple, the body being laid in the grave, and a joint meal after the ceremony. The dead, after a short ceremony in a Buddhist temple, are brought to the burial site, beautiful, gilded, decorated with dragons and other animals of the Buddhist religion, a caravan. The vehicle is illuminated by flashing lights, with background music.

Interestingly, it's a rather positive experience. This is due to the fact that the Vietnamese believe that the deceased, going to eternal life in the heavenly world, would be very angry with them if they were crying, despairing etc. So, it is customary to just carry out the whole "operation" for fun.

So the first difference - funeral celebrations in Vietnam are conducted cheerfully, to the sounds of music and generally the funeral participants do not cry.

As in Poland or other countries, plain wooden coffins are used.

And here we come to another difference.

Namely, the vast majority, the burial place is not a cemetery. In Viet Nam, it is customary to hide the dead at home.

Very often, the place designated for the grave is already taken into account at the stage of designing your own home or designated by ancestors within the borders of the land owned.

Of course, there are designated city cemeteries, but there are not many graves there. As a rule, these are war cemeteries and burial places for people distinguished for the local community.


Where does this approach come from?

First of all, older people usually prefer to live in the countryside or around cities. Secondly, they often have a family burial ground, which may be a tomb in the garden or near the house, or, as is most common, just a designated place in the rice field.

Yes, these are these "colorful houses" because, from a distance, they actually look like small houses in the fields. And they are simply family tombs.

This is connected with a very interesting story. Namely, Viet Nam, as a country with an area similar to the area of ​​Poland (331 thousand sq km) is quite densely populated country. There are over 90 million Vietnamese people and there is not much arable land.

For generations, therefore, protecting land from being sold, subsequent generations of parents have simply been forced to rummage in the field. Therefore, such a field, land on which is the grave or graves of deceased ancestors, is not easy to sell.

This, in a sense, protects the commercial land trade in Viet Nam.

Tombs scattered across the fields can be clearly seen going to the Mekong Delta or between cities in Viet Nam, for example. In fact, tombs accompany us constantly.

Interestingly, if the family already has to, or will have to sell such land in the future, the graves of the dead are moved to a new place so as to free the land from the remains of their ancestors.



North vs. South

Until then, between the north and south of Viet Nam, there are no major differences. We have a funeral and burial in a tomb, usually somewhere in the field or at our own home.

From that moment, we have two different paths of tradition in the proceedings after the burial of the dead.

In the south of Viet Nam, partly also in the central part, three border dates are observed.

The first is four weeks, the second is six months and the third is a year after the funeral. On these three dates, the family meets again to remember the deceased and visit the grave. It is a kind of solemn dinner, remembrance of the dead, etc. etc. Therefore, three times after the funeral, in some sense, the passing of the deceased to a better world is celebrated (as I wrote earlier, the funeral itself is rather treated as the beginning of this passage). Hence the tradition of keeping fresh fruit and water on the tombs so that our loved ones can eat on their way to the afterlife.

In all of Viet Nam, it is recognized that after a year the Dead has already reached its final resting place and then only once a year, as usual in Poland, on the Day of the Dead - Tet Thanh Minh - which is celebrated here in March, the lunar calendar, comes just clean the graves, bring fresh decorations, flowers and food. Incense and symbolic banknotes are burned so that, along with the smoke, the money can move to the world of the deceased. It is simply, together, remembering your ancestors and strengthening the bonds between those living.

In the north of Viet Nam, your habits are slightly different. While the atmosphere of cheerfulness, joy, songs and music is the same during the funeral and after dinner, it is followed by a significant change.

Well, in the north, the deceased is put into a family tomb and one year is waiting for the next step.

After a year, the eldest son in the family is required to clean his parents' bones, cremate everything and put it back to the grave but in the urn. In this way, it ensures that the dead can cross the gates of the land of happiness.

Anyway, this is the biggest cultural difference.

While in the south of Viet Nam the bodies of the dead remain in the field and the coffins are completely stored in the tombs, in the north, after a year, the casket is removed from the tomb and according to the ritual the cremated remains are cremated and then transferred to the urn, which consists back to the tomb. Thus, in the north of Viet Nam, in one tomb there are several urns with the ashes of the dead, while in the south of Viet Nam the tombs contain one casket and are scattered across the rice fields in disarray.


When visiting Viet Nam, seeing the colorful houses on the rice field, be aware that these are not doll houses and they are not playgrounds. These are family tombs in which the remains of the deceased rest, who in a peculiar way protect family property from being squandered.


Ars Longa vita brevis - art is eternity, life is only a moment.


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