The informant, AA, is from a Vietnamese family. While she was born in California, her parents are first generation immigrants who escaped the Vietnam War. While she is Christian herself, many of her family members are Buddhist. AA describes a funeral tradition that combines elements from both religions:
“So when my grandpa passed away, we followed Buddhist funeral traditions as well as our own. My grandpa was Buddhist, and so was my grandma- my older relatives were all Buddhist. In Buddhist tradition, you’re supposed to cremate the body and put the ashes in an urn. So we did that. And a week afterwards, we went out to sea on a boat, and a pastor was there. He delivered a sermon and we all said prayers as we were spreading the ashes into the sea. Basically it’s meant to symbolize this idea of- taking souls across the sea into another world, the afterlife so to speak.
It was just a way to mourn and respect my grandpa. I think that for my parents it was a great relief to be able to spread his ashes and let him be free. They didn’t want to keep him an urn. It was a very liberating gesture.”
Is this specific tradition particular to your family or is it commonly done?
“The spreading of ashes, I think, is commonly done in a lot of traditions. It’s definitely common for Buddhists. What’s special about this funeral is that we incorporated some elements from our own religion- Christianity- with my grandparent’s old Buddhist beliefs. There was a bunch of different people at the funeral. It was a very mixed group.”
My thoughts: This personal account shows how religious practices can take place outside of the established church doctrine and combine many aspects from different religions. There are some recognizably Buddhist practices that took place at this funeral, such as the scattering of the ashes in the sea. The idea of having a pastor and a sermon, however, appeals to the Christian members of AA’s family. They have created a completely new funeral tradition that is a composite of different faiths and is ultimately unique to this family. Every family expresses their faith differently- there is no one standard way to be a Buddhist or a Christian.
The informant, JT, is the mother of one of my friends. She is Vietnamese, and she grew up in Ho Chi Min City. Here she shares a superstition regarding funerals and her own personal experience with it:
“In the Vietnamese culture, when someone passes away, there are many things you are never supposed to do with the body. Autopsies are looked down upon by some more traditional people because the body should remain whole. If someone steals a part of the body, they may be able to do black magic with it. The person is never cremated either.
They dress the body in simple clothes and put it in the coffin, where they leave it there for about three days, so family and friends can pay their respects. But the coffin always has to be supervised, at all times. They say that if a cat jumps over the coffin, the lid will open and the person will wake up!
Let me tell you something! When I was 12, I walked by the house where they have the funerals, and I saw exactly that happen. They would keep the coffins outside so people could go to look at them. A stray cat from the street went to where the coffin was and jumped over- and the lid of the coffin flew open! I saw it with my own eyes and it was the scariest thing I ever saw in my entire life! The man sat up for a second, and then he lay down and went back to how he was before. I heard people say though- and I don’t know if this is true- that it’s possible for someone to wake up after the cat jumps and stay alive.
I guess it’s because they say that cats have nine lives, they don’t die like we do. It’s really freaky actually!
My thoughts: Cats feature in many superstitions around the world. They’re often associated with bad luck, witches, and even the devil. This may be because of the secretive and solitary nature of cats- they have a certain sense of mystery surrounding them. In this folk belief, the cat is associated with bad luck at funerals. Many other cultures also have superstitions involving people coming back to life at their own funerals or wakes. This could be due to the fact that before modern medicine it was harder to determine whether the person in question had actually died. So there may have been real life cases were people seemed to come back from the dead when they were really never dead to begin with that in turn inspired folk beliefs such as this one.
I noted that superstitions still play an important part in the funeral traditions of Vietnam often clashing with the “modern” and the “scientific”, such as autopsies.
This is a Chinese thing. After someone passes away, like Grandpa, Grandma, Mom, Dad, whoever, it’s like a very long two-week, three-week ordeal where there’s a ton of praying, there’s a funeral where you go to a funeral home and then you pray for hours. You have to do like a special thing where you like put your hands together and bow and nod your head, it’s very, just….culture. Culture.
Do you say things? Is it silent prayer?
Yeah you have to say like, I don’t know, my mom told me I forgot. Sorry. But okay so for the death thing, they’ll…I cant remember exactly but they take the body to like a temple where it gets burned…
Is this after the praying?
Yeah, there’s praying for like a week, not like a straight week, but like – get up, go pray, get up, go pray, get up, go pray. So yeah you pray for a week while everything’s being prepared, like all the ceremonies are being prepared. So then you go to the temple, and while the body’s actually burning in the furnace you keep praying, a ton of people are there, even the grandchildren. You keep praying while it’s burning, and then afterwards my mom told me that they took out the tray, or whatever he was on… There were still some bones left, because bones don’t burn unless they’re cracked, unless the heat from the fire cracks them open or something. So apparently my grandpa’s femur bone and like tibia or something was still left there, so the grandkids have to go and pick those up…and then I forgot what she said they did with them! Um, I’m pretty sure they burned them or somehow like, crushed them. So they eventually burn all of them. And then they put him in this little box, his ashes. And actually there might be some other traditional things in there, sorry I don’t know. So, I mean this is for my family, I’m sure if you’re richer I’m sure you get like a special temple somewhere like really nice, but he was actually a veteran, so he was buried in the veteran cemetery. And it’s way different than our cemeteries, it’s like green grass, it’s taken care of by caretakers every single day, it’s beautiful, it’s up in the hills kind of, it’s really nice. So the whole family was there, my cousin, uncle, aunt, grandma, and other family members, and one of my cousins put the box on his back, they strap it on so they actually carry it up the mountain, all the way up to where his gravesite is. And then you bury the box in the ground. Also I don’t think you wanna like, take pictures of this because it’s kinda like, you’re capturing the soul, and you don’t wanna do that cause then the soul wont be able to go up to heaven. Or like the Chinese heaven. So I mean they didn’t take pictures of the box directly, but they took pictures of like the hills and stuff. And then they just pray some more, like say their goodbyes at the grave.
This is a funeral ritual which involves a very lengthy and specific process for proper mourning, treatment and burial of the body and ashes, and symbolic acts. There is a specific time period of mourning, and even poses and physical actions in mourning; there are specific roles that different family member play in the ritual according to their ages; there are superstitions and beliefs regarding how the deceased’s spirit or soul gets to heaven, and how to do everything correctly so as not to interfere with that transition. The whole process seems to be both in support of the dead family member’s transition to the after life, as well as the family members remembering, honoring, and making sacred that person and their life.
The informant is a 20-year old Jewish student attending USC. She was born in Venezuela but has lived in Miami since she was eight years old. She is majoring in Engineering. The information she shared with me is about Jewish funeral custom.
Informant: “Everyone goes to the funeral home or the synagogue, or wherever the funeral is taking place. There is a service; the Rabbi says some prayers in Hebrew and in English and some kind words about the deceased. Then usually some family members will speak about the person who has passed.”
Interviewer: “What kind of stuff do they say?”
Informant: “Well it varies. Sometimes they will talk about the person’s accomplishments, sometimes they will tell funny stories about the person, or their fondest memories with them. I was at a funeral about a month ago where one of the deceased’s grandchildren read a portion of a school project she had written about her grandma when she was a kid. She had interviewed her grandma for the project. It was really cool.”
Interviewer: “That sounds really cool. What happens next?”
Informant: “Well, everyone goes outside where the burial takes place. I don’t know if it is Jewish tradition everywhere, but at least at the weddings I’ve been to, there are shovels around the burial site, and everyone who wants to can shovel some earth onto the grave. It’s really beautiful. Then there is a shiva.
Interviewer: “What’s the shiva?”
Informant: “The shiva is when everyone—the family and friends of the deceased’s family—goes to someone close to the person who has passed’s house. There is lots of food and drink (usually non-alcoholic though) and people eat and talk. It’s a big gathering as a sort of celebration of the person’s life and as a way to comfort the family.”
Often rituals surrounding death double as celebrations of life and a reason for social gathering. Death is a rite of passage and like other rite of passage rituals, it is a rite of transition, mainly for the family and friends of the deceased. The shivas I’ve been to aren’t typically sad events. The funeral itself is generally a somber, teary-eyed event, but shivas I’ve attended often involve a lot of conversing and even a good-deal of joke-telling.
“I went to a funeral recently for my Czech nanny who passed away recently. Hana practically raised me, so her death was very, very difficult for me. I thought that I wouldn’t even be able to handle going to the funeral, my emotions were so high. But it was unlike any funeral I have ever been to. Most funerals are miserable, everybody crying, everybody in black. They’re awful experiences, and I hope you never have to go to one. But this one was different. This one was exactly what I needed to help grieve. So it was actually a celebration of her life. Whenever anyone spoke, they were just to recall fun times they had had together. Her favorite music was playing. Everyone was wearing bright colors. The old and the young were all mingling and engaging with one another. It was beautiful. I think that’s how a lot of the world celebrates death, or at least they should. I think I heard someone say that it’s the Czech . . . or I guess Slavic people in general have a healthier outlook on death than most.”
The informant has never lived outside of her hometown in Orange County. The experience was so novel to her that it began to represent much of her understanding of modern European culture, as she now believes that such funeral practices are more common in Europe. The informant really stressed the communion of the old and young at this funeral, as no one was segregated into groups based on age or gender. Given the deep Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of the Baltic regions of Europe, such an funeral seems very uncharacteristic, given traditional Christian death rituals. Perhaps this informant’s experience is indicative of changing times in which, as she said, a healthier outlook on death has become the norm.
Q: Why do Koreans wear white at funerals?
A: Because it’s clean. It shows that when they’re being sent off from this world to another, whatever world there is, they’re going off cleanly. It cleanses them of their life they led on earth and also paves the road in front of them to be smooth and clean.
Q: Why do people where black now?
A: Because it’s an American tradition. Normally Koreans, Asian cultures in general, wore white. Traditional clothes are also worn at funerals; it’s a sign of respect.
Informant Bio: Informant is a friend and fellow business major. He is a sophomore at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. His family is from Mexico. He has moved around both Mexico and the U.S., spending significant time in Illinois. He currently lives in Southern California.
Context: I was interviewing Stan about folk beliefs and traditions that he has been exposed to. He shared with me the characteristics of Mexican funerals.
Item: “Um, funerals really depend and vary from person to person and family to family. The range of emotion is very great. Everything is acceptable. Hispanic people are very expressive with feelings: wailing, yelling, screaming, and, pounding on the casket (in Colombia) are all acceptable ways of expressing yourself. There’s no real, like, ‘you have to act in a certain way,’ as long as you have respect for the dead. One can grieve however they see fit. Most of the time, there is a casket and subsequent burial. Husbands get buried next to their wives, and, wealthier people sometimes have mausoleums.
People who leave Mexico like to come back to be buried there. Like, there was this famous Mexican song about this whole thing: Mexico my beloved, if I happen to die away from you, let them tell everyone that I am just sleeping till I come back”.
Informant Analysis: The family unit is really important in Mexico. Religion is also important. People always get anointed on the death bed as holy rituals are extremely important. Your final moments and this tradition are important for the person to pass away with a clear conscience and be ready for final judgment.
Analysis: Death in Mexico is treated a little bit differently than here in the U.S. Mexico has more of a tradition of being more open with the topic and treatment of death, seen with the Day of the Dead ritual, in which people celebrate the lives of their ancestors instead of grieving about their passing. This is shown in the relative openness of grieving behaviors and emotions as compared to the accepted morbid mood that is expressed at U.S. funerals.
The significance of the song is that Mexican people have strong national and ethnic pride. Even if they have left their native land, they still feel a strong connection to their true “home” and never forget their roots and heritage. This is shown in their desire to have their final resting place be in the land of Mexico, being buried next to their family and closest partner.
Informant Background: The informant is originally from Hong Kong. She now lives permanently in the United States but travels back once a year to visit her relatives in Hong Kong. She speaks both Cantonese and English. Her family practices many of the Chinese traditions, folk-beliefs, and superstitions. She celebrates many of the Chinese holidays through cooking of special “holiday food.”
This is something you do if you have someone you really really hate. You can draw a picture of that person, then write his/her name on the paper…The paper is the special kind that people use to burn during funerals…Then you can take that piece of paper to a tree and put it down above the root. Then take of your shoes and hit the paper on the drawing as hard as you can. Just hold the shoe in your hand and go ta-ta-ta-ta…Oh, and it has to be your shoes. Then you shout stuff you want to say to that person like: “go die,” “die,” “I hate you,” etc. Then hopefully the stuff you said would happen to the person you drew on the paper.
The informant said she learned about this while she was growing up in Hong Kong. She heard it from her classmates. It is something children would do when they dislike their classmates or friends.
I think this shows how while both Eastern and Western culture perceive children as a separate group from society where they are always represented as innocence beings. In contrary to many beliefs children has anger and hatred that adult does. Though many society tries to have a separate category for children where they are thought of as innocence creatures, children do understand the concept of hatred and violence. This ritual shows anger and repression of anger among children. This ritual shows that children can be violent and ill-meaning, the opposite of the ideal angelic image of children.
This ritual is an example of homeopathic magic where “like” creates “like;” idea that the drawing of the person on the paper. It also has element of contagious magic through the use of one’s own shoes. It appears that this ritual is a metaphor how you will stomp the person you dislike into the ground with your own feet. Similar to sticking pins into voodoo dolls.
The use of funeral paper reflects how you wish bad thing for the person because funeral rituals and objects are reserved for that event, and not everyday life. Using funeral paper is to foreshadow the misfortune that individual. The chanting of bad omens while stomping the paper with your own shoes reflects the idea of homeopathic magic how you wish the words you said will translate into that person’s life. This is similar to the idea of the voodoo doll how the image of the target is created on an object and the rituals performed will reflect on the target.
This ritual not only shows anger as emotions but also as action. It is both violent in force and words through both the hitting of the paper and the shouting of ill-intention phrases.
Informant Background: This individual was born and grew up in Hawaii. His family is of Japanese and Chinese descent. He speaks Japanese and English. His family still practice many Japanese traditions, also many Chinese traditions. They celebrate some of the Japanese holidays. Many of the folk-beliefs and superstitious are still practiced. His relatives who are Japanese lives in Hawaii as well. He currently lives in Los Angeles to attend college.
Japanese rice balls, called Musibi, are never made as a perfect circle. They are can be in other geometric shapes. Because the spherical Musibi are made at funeral, so it is bad omen to make them in that shape out of context. That is why it is common to see them in triangular shape. You also cannot put your chopstick vertically into your bowl of rice or any food because that is what you do with candles and incent sticks at a funeral. You also cannot pass food from chopstick to chopstick. You’re supposed to put it down on a plate for the other person to pick it up….This is because during funeral people would sometimes pass the bones of the deceased by using chopstick…If you do any of these things, you will have bad luck and something bad will happen to someone close to you.
The informant is from Hawaii but his family is originally from Japan. So he practices many Japanese traditions. These practices he learned from his parents and grandparents growing up as things that you must not do simply because it is only reserve for funeral time.
I never realized why the Japanese rice balls at restaurants come in triangular shape until the informant told me about the tradition. From experience rice balls always come in triangular shape no matter how it’s cooked. It is common to see it through Japanese movies and cartoons as well.
I heard about not sticking chopsticks into rice bowls from people of Chinese descent because of the same reason. I also heard it from a tour guide while visiting Japan for the first time.
This belief reflects the importance of funeral as an event, an exclusive event. There are many beliefs and traditions surrounding it and specific things you do only during funerals. To do something you would do at a funeral in everyday life is then bringing yourself and the people around you bad omen. It is clearly reflect in these beliefs and practice which parallel everyday life activities.
Informant Background: The informant was born in rural parts of China called Hainan. She lived there with her grandparents where she attended elementary school. She moved to the United States when she was thirteen. She speaks both Chinese and English. She lives in Los Angeles with her mother but travels back to visit her relatives in Beijing and Hainan every year. She and her mother still practice a lot of Chinese traditions and celebrate Chinese holidays through special meals.
Usually the family and relatives would gather for the funeral. The coffin would be in a room where it’s decorated with white flowers. The guest would give the host money in a white envelope to pay for the funeral. Usually Chinese people try not to use white envelope in normal life because white is the color of death…So they use white in this occasion…same as flower, Chinese people tend to give each other colorful flowers. The people attending the funeral would wear black or white.
One of the things I remember the most is that there are always these paper objects for burning. The paper will be folded and made into something like a house, a car, clothes, phone, etc. These things are made of paper so that they can be burned. It is believed that the stuff you burned will appear in heaven for your deceased. There are also gold and silver paper which represents wealth. You burn those as well. Most of the time all the family member would stack of the objects in a big pile and set off a large fire then they all stand around watching it burn….And then, later they would do the gold and silver paper individually. Everyone usually participate.
Also part of a funeral ritual in Chinese culture is that you are supposed to leave the body for seven days before you bury the body so that the soul can be released. If the body is buried before the seventh day then the soul is trapped inside the body. This is also how many of these bodies become ghosts because their soul can’t leave the earth.
The informant said that this is a traditional ritual in Chinese funeral. She learned about this knowledge through her observation after participating in funeral rituals where people emphasize these practices. She said many Chinese funerals take place for seven days, in those different days many of the same repeated and some different rituals occur to lead into the last/seventh day where the body is then buried.
These traditions show the importance of funeral as a life event for both the individual and the family, more for the family since the individual is no longer present at the event. There also many rituals associated with the event that has to be executed correctly. Funeral as an event also shows family ties and connection of the deceased to the community. Those rituals are specific and take times and money.
This shows how the color white is used as morbid rather than in Western culture where it is use in wedding to represent the innocence and the purity of the bride. The white flowers, white envelop, and white clothing shows how white as a color have a negative connotation. This clarified a question I’ve always ponder about why Chinese people give out red envelop at Chinese New Year. Similar to other culture’s where the objects and rituals during funerals are exclusive to the event; in this case the color white is reserved for funeral rituals only.
The burning of paper objects is very interesting to me. It is the idea of homeopathic magic where “like” creates “like.” In this particular case the magic is then the transition to transfer those objects from the physical realm to the spiritual realm. I think that this practice also show fear of the unknown relating to the idea of death and the afterlife where the burning of family objects is a way to ensure some certainty in the afterlife. The burning of those paper objects as a ritual reflects how the objects disappear into the air like how the spirit did.
The burial after seven day as a belief is similar to other culture’s origin of ghost where the dead body did not receive proper funeral ritual. In this case being buried too soon would trap the soul in the deceased body. The deceased body and the soul then become a haunting ghost.
The ritual of waiting for seven days resonate the concept of number seven as a reoccurring theme in many Eastern and Western Culture: seven planets, seven days, seventh heaven, etc. It shows how the idea the seven planets as a measure of time and day in the calendar effect many rituals and life events in many culture.