Asians, especially Vietnamese, are very peculiar about the notions and perspectives surrounding death.  For example, I was shocked to discover that Americans and perhaps, most citizens of the Western world do not photograph funerals or wakes.  It never occurred to me that this might be considered odd or at the very least, morbid until a friend was completely shocked when I showed him pictures of my grandmother’s funeral.

Why would you take pictures at a funeral? he asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

Why would you not? I indignantly retorted back.

I’ll have to admit, weddings, funerals or any large get-togethers give my family an opportunity to use our cameras.  Constant picture taking has strengthened our index finger to the point that it is second nature for us to press down on any shiny metallic button.  In fact, our picture-taking reflex is almost autonomical like blinking or breathing.

Growing up, my family used to receive pictures from funeral services of relatives in Vietnam.  The pictures were usually the same: black and white photos of relatives standing over graves or caskets looking grim and sullen.  On occasion, the accompanied letter would sometimes describe grief stricken family members trying to crawl in the casket of the deceased.  Whenever we got those letters, it would always spark a debate among the children as who in the family would be the casket crawler. Somehow I was always chosen being that I have a flair for the dramatics.

When my family got these funeral photos, we didn’t flinch or wince.  To us, morosely, it was like receiving a postcard but instead of saying, Wish you were here, ours would say, Wish your uncle was alive or Wish your cousin was here to enjoy this.

Vietnam is not only physically on the opposite side of the world from America, it’s also its philosophical opposite.  Most funeral services in America consist of mourners wearing black attire.  Men dressed in black suits and dark ties, women in black dresses and the occasional black veil.  Traditional Vietnamese funerals are contrastingly different.  If you ever walked in on one, you would probably stop dead in your tracks (no pun intended).

The most striking contrast is that Vietnamese mourners do not wear black: we wear white.  Well, I should clarify: the immediate family of the deceased wears white.  While Americans traditionally view white with weddings, Vietnamese associate white with funerals.  Red is the color of choice for weddings as it represents prosperity and luck, while white represents loss and a passing of life.  The color white symbolically represents the ashes of the deceased.  Since most Asians are cremated, it’s more appropriate for funerals than black.

When you attend a Vietnamese funeral, you’ll notice the deceased’s immediate family is sitting or kneeling in close proximity to the casket.  However, it is not the close distance that immediately draws your eyes but the traditional mourning regalia: white robes, pants and pointed hoods.

The outfit consists of white pants that billow out like over-sized pajama pants, a white wrap-around tunic that makes anybody who wears it a Samurai double and last, but not least, a white, pointed hood.  The hood is simple in design, two pieces of white cloth sewn together to form a pointed end, long enough to cover the neck but exposed in the front to show the mourner’s face.

Unfortunately, when I mention white, pointed hoods, it conjures images of the Klu Klux Klan.  However, the biggest difference is that Vietnamese are not ashamed to show our faces. Amazing how iconic a white hood is in American society that it immediately evokes feelings of hatred and animosity.  Asians view a white hood as sorrow and loss.  I guess, by the same token, Americans probably feel the same.

To Americans, talking about death is taboo but to my family, it’s connecting a duality.  Death is just as much a part of life as is the reverse, a delicate interwoven tapestry.  There is a balance as fine as a silk thread that has long been revered by us.  When we take pictures of funerals or wakes, it’s not to be macabre but more like a quiet reverence.  The pictures show the deceased was just as important in death as when they were alive.  When we are older and our memories begin to fail, we are comforted knowing that we have our pictures to show us the full panoramic view of our loved one’s life.

  1. Ly Nguyen says:

    First, let me say I’m sorry for your loss. Just recently, my sister-in-law passed away and relatives in Vietnam couldn’t attend the funeral. Respectfully, they messaged and shared their condolences. That was more than enough. Since you’re still in contact with one of the daughters, I would definitely reach out to her and convey your condolences. A sincere message or phone call will show the family you thought of them. Gifts aren’t really shared and most Vietnamese funerals are devoid of lots of flowers. If they are religious, you can tell them that you put an offering to your church to pray for the deceased.

  2. MM says:

    A good friend from HCMC passed away this week. She was 39 years old and the death was sudden. I am not able to attend the services in person, although I am hoping to travel and pay my respects at a future date. I know there are some key dates where friends and family remember the deceased. Would the 1 year anniversary be a good time to attend? What can I do immediately that would help to comfort the family in this time of mourning?

    Thank you for all of the great content on your website.

  3. Ly Nguyen says:

    You are correct that traditionally there are two dates that are important: 100th day and 1 year anniversary. Here in the states, it’s not always observed. My sister-in-law just recently passed away and for those who couldn’t make it to the funeral, calling my brother or letting one of his family members know that he and his family are in his thoughts meant a lot. Because my brother’s wife was Catholic, in lieu of flowers or gifts, they requested prayers and service for my brother’s wife at their local churches. In Vietnamese culture, actions are important. If the family is going to observe the 100th day or 1 year anniversary and you can attend, then that would be great. If not, calling or letting the grieving family know that they are in your thoughts and prayers goes a long way.

  4. Phuong Tran says:

    Thank you for this article, I was wondering, on the 1 year death anniversary of a family member, would I also be wearing the white attire? Or what is appropriate dress on that important day.

  5. Ly Nguyen says:

    Wearing the full white attire is usually reserved during the funeral. On the 1 year death anniversary, you might wear the white sash across your forehead. For those who are truly traditional, throughout the year, you would wear a piece of black cloth over your clothing. Best thing is to dress modestly and let the immediate family decide how they want to conduct the 1-year death anniversary ceremony.

  6. Lynda King says:

    I am American and my adopted daughter is Vietnamese. Her biological mom just died. Because the services were so far, and I had to work, I just text her I was here for her, and sent a sympathy card. I feel so dis-attached. I tried to Google to see what they do after death, but I just found ur info. and nothing regarding that. Can u help me and advise what I should do. I know tradition is they bring to the family, but I did not do that as she told me that got so much. She even brought me some things. Have not heard from her in over 2 weeks. I want to be respectful. Is there something else I should be doing? Thank you.

  7. Ly Nguyen says:

    I’m sorry for the delay in responding to you. I had some trouble accessing my comments. It’s tough in situations like this because from the Western perspective, to show we care we have to “do something.” Asian culture, specifically Vietnamese, it’s the reverence for the deceased that’s more important. One way you can show how much you care is to help your daughter build a small shrine for her biological mother. Often times when you go to an Asian household, you’ll see framed pictures with offerings of fruit, flowers, or incense. We do this to continue to honor our parents and in a way to keep them close to us. She’s being comforted by friends and family in Vietnam, the best thing you can do is to make sure she has the same respect and comfort when she returns.

  8. Sal says:

    Hi, I unfortunately had a friend pass away recently and I would like to pay my respects and offer my condolences to the family. I was wondering what is appropriate for me to bring to the family during their mourning process–this is before the funeral. I was considering a card expressing my condolences and some Vietnamese food; however, I do not know what to say (nor how to say it in Vietnamese) and what food is acceptable.

  9. Ly Nguyen says:

    I’m sorry for your loss. While a card is a nice gesture, what’s more important is the visit. Visiting your friend’s family will speak volumes compared to the card. But if you choose to bring a card, just be sincere in your note. As to bringing food, there isn’t an expectation in Vietnamese culture for you to bring any type of food. I would suggest visiting the family and then assessing what they need. Ask them what you can do to help. More than like they will decline your offer, but once again the gesture would be greatly appreciated.

  10. Nate says:

    Hi Ly. One of my customers I’ve worked for for some time has just passed. Her family came over a short time ago from Vietnam as things started to look grim. There will be two Buddhist praying ceremonies two days apart followed by a memorial ceremony two days later. My friend was Catholic. I’ve been invited and will attend the praying ceremony. Is there anything as a westerner I should be aware of in terms of dress, offerings for the praying ceremony?

  11. Ly Nguyen says:

    The best thing is to dress respectfully. You don’t have to wear a suit or anything, but a nice shirt and slacks would be appropriate. The Buddhist temples can be a little hot so I wouldn’t recommend a jacket. I would not recommend bringing anything. Usually, you can make an offering at the temple in the person’s name. Being there for the family will show how much you respect and honor them.

  12. Joanne says:

    Hello Ly, thank you for posting this. My Vietnamese friend at work lost her husband almost 3 years ago. She told me the first year and the 3rd year are very important and all the family is coming to town soon for the 3rd anniversary of his passing. Is there an appropriate tribute for this occasion or is it mainly just for family? P.S. thank you for explaining all the cameras at the memorial! 🙂

  13. Ly Nguyen says:

    The third-year is an important anniversary. Many times, this is usually a smaller event at the house or church reserved for family members. Don’t be offended if you are not invited. If you are, then your relationship with the family is very close. If you go, you probably won’t see the full funeral regalia, maybe the white cloth across the forehead or a square piece of black cloth pinned to mourner’s clothes. If you go, dress appropriately and be respectful. If you are not invited, a polite and sincere message when you see the family is sufficient. Cards, flowers, and other items are not necessary.

  14. Laura says:

    My vietnamese boyfriend of ten years’ brother just passed away. I do not know what to wear at the service. I know he will wear white, but do I? Does the wife of the brother normally wear white? If so, would a girlfriend? I am considered family. Both of his parents will be in attendance, along with his sisters, cousins, uncles, and aunties.

  15. Ly Nguyen says:

    The full white regalia is usually reserved for immediate family. The best thing to do is to ask the family what they want to do and respect their request. If anything, you might wear the white headband. If they don’t know, dress respectfully and not press the issue. I’m sorry for your loss and wishing you and your boyfriend’s family the best.

  16. Mark R Klouda says:

    I was surprised to see recent comments from an article in 2009!
    My Vietnamese Wife died in 1991 and I paid for her ashes to go to a temple in Garden Grove to be prayed over for a year. I don’t know if I was taken or just had the wrong information but after I went to Garden Grove a year later I hit dead ends trying to recover her remains.I have lost the information I had at the time but I was just surfing to see if I could even find information about a service like this. It is not that important since it has been a long time now but I do still think about her as we loved each other dearly.
    Just your thoughts would be nice.

    Mark Klouda


  17. Ly Nguyen says:

    Hey Mark, I’m so sorry this happened to you! I can’t imagine that the temple doesn’t have any records. Does she have any family in Garden Grove? After a period, the ashes are brought home so that an altar can be built for the deceased. I don’t know how close you were to the family but I have a feeling that they retrieved the ashes and either buried them or have them on an altar. I’m so sorry that you had to experience it.

  18. Alex says:

    My friend of 20 years father passed. Obviously I will be attending the services what kind of flowers are most appropriate I know white it’s a great preference. Are white roses acceptable?
    Also, the day of the services should I bring any offerings for example incense or fruit?

  19. Ly Nguyen says:

    Let me first send my sincerest thoughts to your friend for her loss. As to the flowers, I think there’s a generally accepted belief that Vietnamese families, for the most part, don’t expect flowers. If you do want to bring flowers, white roses are acceptable but more important than the flowers is your companionship. As a courtesy, don’t bring anything to the service – dress appropriately and be polite and not pushy. While our immediate instincts are to “do something,” sometimes it’s best to just be there supporting silently. If the family needs something, they will let you know.

  20. Greetings,
    I am a hospice chaplain and I have a Vietnamese Buddhist patient who is dying. Due to the patients Coronavirus diagnosis I would like to try to find a recording of the chants the monk says at the deathbed. I found a monk but we are having trouble understanding each other. This is very important to the family. Do you have any links to those chants that I may provide to the family Just in case we can’t reach the monk as the patient approaches death? Many thanks!Just in case we can’t reach the monk as the patient approaches death

  21. Ly Nguyen says:

    I am so saddened to read this. This health crisis has affected us in so many ways. Here’s a chant video sent to me by a Buddhist friend that you can use: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGqCroQB3HY

    Please know that I am sending all my good thoughts, wishes, and love to him or her.

  22. Meredith Nguyen says:

    I am curious to understand something. I am teaching my daughters about our family history and our family story. I asked my father in law if I could have the names of his parents and the names of my mother in laws to add to our Family tree and he refused saying he is not allowed to give this information. He said it is a Vietnamese custom and he won’t speak or tell the names of the dead. I’m struggling to understand why it wouldn’t be an honor and Was wondering if you could explain this to me?

  23. Ly Nguyen says:

    Hey Meredith! To be honest, I never heard of this custom but with that said, different regions have different traditions. Some people don’t want to mention the dead for fear of disturbing their afterlife. Superstitious beliefs are very prominent in Vietnam. Another reason for your father-in-law’s reluctance could be that he just doesn’t know their names. I know this sounds kind of crazy but many people in Vietnam don’t have a written record of their lineage. For my parents, they only know the names of their parents but beyond that, it’s quite hazy. He may or may not know and don’t want to be embarrassed by not knowing. For instance, growing up, I never knew my mom’s maiden name. She was also known as “Ba Mo.” My dad’s first name is Mo so she was only known as “Mo’s wife.” If you had asked me growing up what my mom’s name was, I would truthfully say I didn’t know. While I think it’s wonderful that you’re trying to teach your children their family history, I would be sensitive to follow up with your father-in-law. Perhaps there are other ways you can get the information? Does he have brothers and sisters you can reach out to? On one trip back home to Vietnam, my mom was to retrieve our Baptismal records. If you get the opportunity to do so, perhaps you can retrieve some of those documents. Plus, you can show your children Vietnam! 🙂

  24. Norma says:

    My neighbor’s dad just passed away unexpectedly last week. He seemed very energetic and full of life prior to that working on projects around the home he shared with her and her mom. I have been checking on her and expressing my sympathy and asked her when the funeral services may be held. Also, I asked her to let me know if there is anything I could to help. She provided 3 consecutive dates and times for the services. I let her know I would like to attend one of the services. Is this similar to American tradition of holding memorial services on multiple days? Also, I was wondering if giving a monetary gift is ok?

  25. Ly Nguyen says:

    It’s common to hold several wakes for loved ones to come and pray. Even though my family was in the US when my grandfather passed away in Vietnam, my family held several nights of prayers for him. During that time, community members would come and pray with us. It meant a lot for my father to have people there so I’m sure your neighbor will truly appreciate your presence. As to monetary gifts, I would shy away from that. Vietnamese people do accept monetary gifts for Lunar New Year, weddings, and birthdays but those are usually reserved for joyful occasions.

  26. A belated thank you for the chants! I am using them with two more families.

  27. Ly Nguyen says:

    I’m glad I could help and I know the families appreciate what you’re doing.

  28. Mary K Crimmins says:

    I have watched a few Vietnamese funerals on youtube. I’ve noticed that something like soil or mulch is poured in the casket. What is this and what does it mean?

  29. Ly Nguyen says:

    Hey Mary,

    Very much like Western culture where dirt or soil is thrown over the casket as a symbol for closure and a return to the Earth, Vietnamese families sometimes will do the same. One of the last acts of saying goodbye and showing our love for them.


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Life and Death: The Vietnamese Way