Reflection: Việt Nam Death Rituals… a Look Back

According to Vietnamese anthropologist Phạm Công Sơn (1996):

Death is not the end but is the final stage of one life to be transformed into another.

Two years ago I went to Việt Nam for a spell, to visit family while my paternal grandfather (ông nội) was still alive and ended up connecting with my paternal grandmother (bà nội). As my family and I were getting ready to leave for the states my paternal grandfather’s health made a turn for the worse and suddenly my father asked if I would be willing to stay behind to watch over my grandfather and keep everyone up-to-date in the states.

For a few minutes I was tempted… more than tempted really. However in the end I decided against it and went home, only for my grandfather’s health to deteriorate to the point that my parents and all my dad’s siblings flew back to Việt Nam to bury their father. I stayed home… wondering if perhaps I should have stayed in Việt Nam… I never got a chance to see the burial process, I was unaware of the traditions involved…

Over Labor Day weekend my father’s side of the family suffered a devastating loss… only two years after the passing of my ông nội (essentially the patriarch in the family)… The loss of the matriarch. This time I had a front seat view of the traditions since the timing was as such that within hours of setting foot in Sài Gòn my family and I would be saying goodbye to my bà nội.

Since this is my first time going through all the Vietnamese death rituals and traditions it is still kind of hard to describe a lot of what I just went though – being a first-generation in America I only know so much – so I scoured the internet for some thing that would go into enough detail of what I experienced and I could just add in my thoughts along the way… eventually I did.

At there is a very thorough article to goes step by step of what happened within that family and the rituals they have undergone and most of it is very accurate to what I have gone through.

Originally I was going to add photos to this to give an idea of some of the sights through my eyes, but on second thought those are very private photos and photos that I personally would not feel comfortable showing to a public audience. So instead the photos here are those of a similar nature that is a reflection of what I went through, but not exact. This is to protect the privacy of my family and relations not only stateside but in Việt Nam as well.

Although many death rituals are burdened with rules and can be costly, the long-term effects they may have on participants are far from etherial. The following anecdote detailing the death rituals of a Vietnamese family demonstrates that such rituals can have a therapeutic effect on the dying and bereaved. […] Variations within the Vietnamese culture occur between regions, religious affiliations, ethnic backgrounds, etc. However, one common principle exists across subgroups: there is intensive and extensive family and community involvement throughout the whole process with the immediate family being gradually weaned off the support of family and friends over a period of 2 to 3 years.

This was most immediate to me when the van arrived at my late-grandparents’ home and there were tables set up with people sitting, chatting, drinking tea… most of whom I did not recognize. There was a canopy extending from the entrance of the home out into the street.

I remember when it came to my ông nội, there were masses and family gatherings to commemorate his passing at the 45 day, 90 day and 1 year marks. Even family from other states came to my parents’ home for the family gathering.

[Bà nội] was left lying in state at home for several hours to wait for an auspicious time and for the other close friends and relatives to arrive. The [immediate] family took turns keeping a vigil over the body at all times. An altar was set with a photograph, candles, and incense. Relatives and friends who came to pay their respects stood in front of the altar, burned incense, and quietly said a prayer for uncle or said goodbye, or had whatever private conversation they wished to have with uncle at that moment.

Before [bà nội] was moved into the coffin, a prayer service was held. […]

The coffin remained in the family home for three days, and relatives, in-laws, neighbors, and colleagues of my aunt, uncle, and cousins came and paid their respects. Money, flowers, and wreaths were donated according to the guest’s ability and closeness to the family. Food and drinks were served to all as they came. Most stayed at least long enough to say their condolences and chat. Close friends and relatives spent hours or days with the family, helping to cook, organize, direct the flow of visitors, or just chat about good and bad times, about uncle, and about each other. There were tearful moments and also occasional laughter. A family member kept vigil over the coffin at all times.

I remember a few of the Skype conversations I had with my mother (mẹ) in the few days between the passing of bà nội and my eventual flight to Việt Nam, she would tell me stories of how my father’s (bố) sisters would have the “day shifts” in the vigil while my father and one of his brothers that was already there would take the “night shift” and that as the other siblings arrived from the states their first job was take over the “night shift” from the two brothers that were already there.

Side Note: My father has seven other siblings… making it four sisters and four brothers in that family.

The “joke” was that my father and the siblings that were keeping vigil over the coffin with bà nội in it were in all honesty “guarding” over her. In hindsight that makes more sense because it is open viewing at the family home twenty-four hours a day for several days straight (in this case almost a full week straight).

Also during the viewing (American equivalent would be a “wake”) the coffin is in full view at the altar and there is a clear plastic lid encasing bà nội within the coffin so that all could see her, but were unable to touch her.

Side Note: My bà nội held within her hands the rosary my sister gave her, that my sister got while in Vatican City that was blessed by the pope. When bà nội received the rosary rumor said that she wanted to keep the rosary with her forever.

Removing the coffin from the home was another emotional peak in the ebb and flow of grief. [Bà nội] would be leaving home for the last time. A prayer service was held before we moved the coffin. When this concluded, family and relatives cried and called out […], saying goodbye yet again.

From what I was able to derive from the article is that this is a Buddhist family whileas mine is Roman Catholic.

For us the coffin was taken from the home to a church close by where we had a prayer service / mass. This happened at four o’clock in the morning (approximately four hours after I have arrived in the home of bà nội after my flight arrived in Sài Gòn – to give an idea of my personal timelime).

A little after four there was the prayer service, then they removed the clear plastic lid and filled the coffin with some of her favorite clothes and ground tea to keep the body dry (reminiscent of the ancient Egyptians when they prepare the great pharaohs of the time for their burials).

Once the coffin was completely sealed there was another prayer service and the pallbearers came to carry the coffin from the home into the funeral car. The car drove through the city… slowly… as the family, relatives, friends walked behind it to the church (reminiscent of what happened when Princess Diana passed).

There we had a mass / funeral service and at around eight / nine in the morning the coffin was carried from the church into the funeral car, the immediate family piled into the funeral car with the coffin. All the other family members, relatives, and friends piled into various cars / vans / scooters and we followed the funeral car to the cemetery.

At the gravesite, another service was held. The coffin was lowered into the grave and buried. […] Here was yet another chance for mourners to say goodbye, and another outpouring of grief occurred. Most guests left shortly after the burial to return to [bà nội]’s home for the feast.

The closest friends and relatives remained with the family for a quiet time of prayer and contemplation. Just before leaving the gravesite, the family again became very emotional. [Everyone] were reluctant to leave the gravesite. [As] this would be the first time since bà nội was dying that they left [her] side. They all said goodbye for the last time.

Before leaving the cemetery, they burned incense and paid their respects at the graves nearby: [my ông nội and an uncle were there as well as the empty grave of my aunt for when her time comes]. As they went from grave to grave, they felt more at peace with the thought that [bà nội] would be in good company, so to speak.

There isn’t much I could say here, except seeing the pallbearers lower the coffin into the open grave was a little disheartening until I was told later that the coffin that bà nội was in was heavier than most. When the coffin was finally in place my aunt / uncles were looking to make sure it was completely centered and all the flowers from the wreaths that decorated the altar were thrown into the grave.

The eldest of the mourners, typically the siblings and children take handfuls of the dirt and threw the dirt into the grave as a blessing and a saying goodbye. Eventually the grave diggers eventually went to work in shoveling the dirt into the grave. After the coffin was covered with a couple of inches of dirt, the grave diggers (and couple of the eldest male children) took off their shoes and jumped into the grave to make sure that the dirt was well packed in the sides. This continued until the grave was completely filled and a little above the ground, the gallons of clear / filtered water came out and was poured onto the grave…

Off to the side the remainder of bà nội’s clothing was burned in a bonfire as a send off to bà nội’s spirit as she moves on to her next life.

Back at home, a feast prepared by relatives and neighbors was served. The whole community; family, relatives, friends and neighbors, got together and renewed ties. From the moment of imminent death until the end of the funeral, key relatives and friends stayed at the home and helped organize everything; from cooking and preparing garb to making arrangements. […]

By the time the funeral was over, family members were physically and emotionally spent. But they had ample opportunities to grieve privately during the vigil and publicly with other loved ones. Now they were all “grieved out.” They needed some time to themselves.

To have an idea of a traditional Vietnamese home: it is typically ten to twelve feet wife… but insanely deep and my bà nội’s home was three stories high.

Aside from my parents and myself there was all of my dad’s siblings (six since the seventh lives in her own home), relations from my bà nội’s hometown in Huế, past wards that lived with bà nội in her later years, the maids and cook… all in all almost twenty people understand the same roof.

Three days after the funeral, the support and intense grieving that they needed returned. The closest relatives and family went back to the cemetery to bring flowers and incense to the gravesite, say more prayers, and clean up the site.

For us it was two days after the funeral service the immediate family returned to the cemetery to continue to pay respects and by this time the tomb now covered the dirt grave site but it was missing the placard.

We returned again another two days after and did the same.

Then, for the next 49 days, the family held a memorial service every seven days. […] The next gathering occurred 51 days later, on the 100th day after death, then 265 days later, on the first anniversary of the death; and finally a whole year later. Each memorial forced the family to burden others with their sorrow so that they could grieve fully. Each successive memorial was held a little less frequently as the family became more able to resume some form of ordinary routine. After the first year, there was the first annual anniversary of the death.


During the mourning period, the bereaved, depending on their relationship to the deceased, are prohibited from marrying or wearing brightly colored clothing. The length of the mourning period depends on the relationship between the deceased and the bereaved. Generally, it is two years for immediate family members. When this formal mourning period is over, it is permissible for the bereaved to plan major life changes such as marriage. The deceased’s memory is not erased and the family still observes the anniversary of the death each year. But life goes on. The transition period for the bereaved has ended.

The time of the mourning period also fluctuates from region to region… some regions is only a year… other’s is a year for death of grandparents and three years for death of parents. Our family honors the latter.

This provides a bit of trouble since of my cousins is planning to marry in late August of 2013… however, since the date of his wedding is within a week or two from the one year anniversary of bà nội’s passing the family agreed that it is short enough time period to let it slide.

One question that was posed to me was why “49 days”? Well before Roman Catholicism was introduced into the Vietnamese culture… the Vietnamese were predominately Buddhist and as thus a fair number of the Vietnamese rituals are still well engrained in Buddhism. From an article at

In the Mahayana Buddhism, especially, Vietnamese tradition we pray for the dead for 49 days after passing away, 49 being the estimated time it takes for the spirit to be reborn again into a new life. Some spirits are reborn 3 days, 21 days, 49 days or 100 days after death, and in some cases even 7 years.

An interesting thing to note, in comparison to American funerals… according to Off Road Việt Nam:

Vietnamese spend far more of their income on funerals than Americans do. This may seem impossible in view of the high costs in the United States, but it is true. A family may use all of its worldly goods that can be transferred into money or they may borrow from various association. If this is not possible, they may go into great debt with “money sharks” to pay for funerals.

The Vietnamese focus so much on the passing of a loved one because it is such a communal, familial and private matter that to me spending so much to say goodbye makes sense to me… But the Vietnamese focus so much on the community that it tends to conflict and collide quite a bit with the independent and isolated mindset of the Americans.

In fact, much of preparing the body for placement in the coffin is done by loved ones as opposed to morticians like in the United States… I could never understand the need to have a total stranger look at the naked body of a loved one when preparing for burial as opposed to the family and closest persons doing it themselves.

So where does that leave me? The one year mourning period is in progress… so what do you think?