Life and Death: The Vietnamese Way

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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.

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September 18, 2009

63 responses to Life and Death: The Vietnamese Way

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  1. Ly Nguyen said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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 said:

    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.

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