Tag Archives: funeral

Vietnamese Funeral Traditions

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Vietnamese
Age: 25
Occupation: PhD Candidate
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/29/2020
Primary Language: Vietnamese
Other Language(s): English

Main story: 

Transcribed from my friend telling me about an event from his childhood memories. My friend will be referred to as TA and myself as MH. 

TA: Funerals are a bit different in Vietnam than here. Honestly, it gets a little crazy with the amount of people. But essentially what happens is that when the person dies they are put in a coffin for people to come and visit- I don’t know do you guys do that here? 

MH: Catholicism does open caskets during the funeral service in the church but that is usually the extent. 

TA: hmm, yeah this is usually a couple days long. So the date is set for the main service and then the few days leading up to the service like every single person in the family, including distant relatives, come visit and pay respects. It’s kind of insane how many people roll through. And then, on the main day when the casket is on the way to the burial grounds people will line the streets to say goodbye. 

MH: Like the entire way? 

TA: Sometimes, but not all the time. It’s like here in LA, you wouldn’t line up along the 10 West but you could line up alone Jefferson St leading up to the freeway entrance. That sort of thing, obviously if you are super rural then you could I guess go the whole way; but yeah that’s the main idea. And if you have money then you like have to get live music to be played, but it’s not a party it’s like sad music but you should do it if you can afford it. 

MH: Does it end there? Are there any post burial events? 

TA: Yeah, kinda. You have to go and visit the grave sight kinda frequently after the person is buried and bring them things. 

MH: Anything? Or like their favorite things? 

TA: You bring flowers, and usually their favorite food. And then you kind of just keep doing that forever haha. I guess until you die and the cycle repeats. But I think it’s a nice way to remember the dead. It may just be me though. 

Background: 

The informant grew up in South Vietnam and finds himself questioning some of the funerary tactics found in western cultures. Such as the typical Irish wake where people drink and tell stories and sort of be both sad but also cheery at the same time. 

Context : 

I was chatting with my friend on a video call during quarantine here in L.A. and I was curious about things he finds really different back home in Vietnam compared to here in the United states. 

My thoughts: 

I am Irish and Italian Catholic by heritage. So I couldn’t help but laugh when my friend was confused by the seemingly celebratory funerary practices of the Irish. I do think it was interesting how he found it disrespectful to spend the day drinking and remaining once the funeral service is over instead of a more somber procession. 

Showering After Funerals

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Indian American
Age: 20
Occupation: USC business student
Residence: Southern California
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/19/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Hindi

NA: Um, also after funerals you have to take a shower. 

Interviewer: And this is everyone or just those who want to participate?

NA: And like some people will do to the extent that even when they get a phone call of someone dying they take a shower. 

Interviewer: Do you have any idea why or what it means?

NA: So my mom thinks it’s because in India like when you go to the funeral. You know here they like put preservatives and what not in the body. So there, there were no preservatives so there was a lot of bacteria and what not and so people were like, “oh my god, it is like on you” because you went to the funeral. Also, in India when you have the funeral they like they burn the body like in person. You know how here if you cremate, here it goes in a machine, but there they literally set fire to it and collect the ashes, so it is on you. So that also is why my mom thinks that you do it, but she is like not a hundred percent sure. She doesn’t know why people do it when you get the phone call, but I think it was like something that it was like every time you go to a funeral you have to shower and that was brought here and people just escalated it. 

Context 

NA is a 20 year old USC buisness student whose family is from India. She grew up in southern California and is still very connected with her Sindhi culture. She is also my roommate and I asked her about folklore she had related to her Indian background. This information was gathered from an informal interview conducted over Facetime.

Analysis

This ritual is about the right way to clean after a funeral or hearing of death. Potentially for both physical and emotional reasons. In India, there were likely practical purposes for showering from the smoke in the air from the burning of the body and the potential diseases carried in the body. However, it is significant the practice has remained after the practical necessity is no longer there. Furthermore, it is also practiced when only hearing about a death, therefore, there must be something more that keeps the practice alive. The showering may also be tied to “feeling dirty” after having an encounter with death. It may have started as a practical purpose, but has shifted to keep the practice alive. Potentially stemming from seeing death the body as impure and needing to regain that by washing yourself and changing your clothes.

It can also be a way of moving on after death. The funeral signifies the last goodbye to our loved ones and personal hygiene is likely to be neglected during the grieving process and funeral rights. After the rights are over, this can signify the need to start taking care of your own health and well-being again. 

Morgue Joke

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Cambridge, MA
Date of Performance/Collection: March 12
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Context: The first time he told me this joke, the informant and I we with this his siblings on a family vacation in Florida, and we were in one of many car rides. They were telling jokes and he remembered this one— saying it was his best joke.

Piece: “Okay you ready? Okay so… uh a widow brings her husband, late husband to the mortician and uh he’s wearing a blue suit and she says to the mortician, ‘I’ve always thought my husband looked best in a black suit.’ She hands him a blank check and says, ‘Don’t spare any cost, I want my husband buried in a black suit. He says, ‘Alright, we can make that happen. Um I’ll see what I can do.’ Then comes the day of the funeral, and uh her husband is there in a beautiful, perfectly fitting blue suit. And the widow says, ‘Oh my god, looks so good, please tell me the cost I would just like to know.’ The mortician says, ‘Actually ma’am there was no cost at all, it was on the house.’ And she says, ‘No, really, I must repay you for this beautiful suit.’And he says, ‘Well, let me explain what happened. Uh, that same day another gentleman was brought in of a similar height and uh shape to your husband and he was wearing a black suit. So I asked his wife if it would be fine, if she cared if she was wearing a blue suit. And she said she didn’t care, as long as he looked nice. Then it was a matter of switching the heads.’”

Background: The informant, a 20 year old college student at Harvard, really enjoys joke telling and found this joke on Reddit, memorized it and found the opportunity to tell it to us. He will usually tell people this joke if asked to tell his favorite joke.

Analysis: This joke is an example of a death joke, a way to deal with repression. This joke forces people to think about death, something people dislike discussing, by using a grotesque and absurd scenario. The joke is demonstrative of how society tries to find the humor in death in order to make the event less tragic and unbearable. It also uses an element of unexpected that is shocking and comical.

Indian Funeral and Cremation

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Indian
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: California
Date of Performance/Collection: 2/25/2019
Primary Language: Gujarathi
Other Language(s): English

Indian funerals generally last 13 days where everyone is expected to wear white to celebrate their sadness over losing their loved one. As they commemorate the life of that person they are also beginning to release them. It is the duty of the man of the house to burn the body because of the Hindu belief in cremation. Once the cremation of the body is complete, the ashes are thrown into the ocean to dissolve the Pancha Maha-Bhoota, or the five elements. Through the dissolution of the elements of earth, water, fire, air, and aether, the spirit and soul of that person is liberated from their physical confines.


 

Though the interlocutor has witnessed various funeral occasions, she has only actively taken part in a funeral celebration a handful of times; because of her residence in India, she has been exposed to the traditions tied to funerals. She mentioned that the idea that celebrating sadness seems like a counter-intuitive sentiment, but in Indian culture it allows the passage of humans beyond earth easier, and those that are left behind are able to embrace their emptiness. As for her own plans regarding her time to pass, she stated that she plans to be cremated as well, and she finds the idea of the Pancha Maha-Bhoota dissolving to be reassuring.

Indian funerals are known to be quite visually striking, especially to those who are accustomed to the tradition of black clothing and solemnity. The white worn by participants and loved ones is pious and peaceful with an established sense of purity. Thus, the meaning of death is revealed as something that is to be rejoiced, simply a time in which one ascends beyond their physical body; this is quite a positive view on death. The number 13 appears quite often with calendrical measures of time, and because the funeral event lasts 13 days it ties one’s death to merely a measure of time. The cremation of the body at the hands of the male in the house also places power in the hands of the men while commemorating the renewing properties of fire as it allows disintegration and regeneration. The involvement of the Pancha Maha-Bhoota and the ocean also tie the funeral to the elements of life and nature, grounding the celebration among the living with the earth, the forces that we all will eventually return to at the time of our own demise.

Funeral – Ireland

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Alameda, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/23/17
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

My informant is Irish-Korean. When her grandfather passed away, her family flew to Ireland for the funeral. She explained to me a couple of the events that took place for his funeral:

“So my Granddad passed away two years ago. The first funeral event we had, we had kind of like this viewing of the body for close relatives. They are very ‘light feelings’ I guess about death in Ireland so they just had my Granddad kind of exposed in the kitchen right where the food was. No one found it weird and it was just a very normal thing to do. He was in my uncle’s house and not in a proper setting. He was in a coffin, but like an open coffin. Kind of laying super casually by all the food, and people were eating around him and I felt really weird. So we had that event, and then that night all his (Granddad’s) sons and daughters– so like my dad and he has seven siblings– all stayed in the house with him there. And they had him there in the living room and they all just slept in the house, I guess to…bond? Or as a last time remembrance? And then we had another open body funeral for the whole community since we’re from a smaller community in Ireland. They had his body in a funeral home and all my siblings and cousins and relatives that could come would kind of stand in a line around the ‘funeral home’ –I don’t really know what the building was–and everyone in the town that knew my Granddad would shake every single relatives hand as a way of showing (and) saying that they’re sorry.”

Although Irish wakes are responses to the death of relatives and close friends, they are much more casual compared to American ones. In Ireland they like to play pranks with the corpse by creating situations where the deceased seems alive. It’s representative of the strange state between life and burial. We can see this when my informant’s grandfather’s corpse was casually set out in the kitchen, as people ate and interacted with each other in a very social and optimistic environment. This is very different from all the funerals I’ve attended; people are very quiet and somber. Their sadness comes from placing emphasis more on the loss of life as opposed to celebrating the life of the deceased. I also thought it was interesting how my informant’s relatives would sleep near the corpse. It’s as though they’re treating her granddad as alive, one last time.

Jewish Funeral

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Boca Raton, Florida
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/20/17
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

My informant is African-American and is from Boca Raton, Florida. Her family practices Judaism, so she explained to me a part of their funeral ritual:

“We do this thing called Shiva. Basically it’s like you sit in your house and people bring you food. It happens for seven days, so it’s like a week of mourning. People come by whenever and they bring all sorts of food as a way to say sorry. It includes friends and family. It’s like, if you’re Jewish you just know that they’re going to have a Shiva, so you should stop by and bring them food. Usually there’s a lot of people there because once someone passes away usually the mourning house will get a lot of visitors. It’s kind of like a.. not like a social like you go there to socialize. But you go there and you’re eating a little and chatting. You could stop by and there’s no one there.”

As we’ve learned in class, death is a rite of passage. It is a transitional process where the deceased moves from the living world to the world of the dead. According to my informant it sounded like shivas are not entirely somber and grim, but have some light-heartedness to it as well. From other funeral rituals I’ve heard of, it seems like the gathering of people is the most shared attribute regardless of whether or not it is to mourn together or reminisce and celebrate the life of the deceased.

Pagpag

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Filipino
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: February 12, 2017
Primary Language: Tagalog
Other Language(s): English

Pauline is an international student from the Philippines. She is studying Chemical Engineering in the United States, and she plans to return to the Philippines once she graduates and receives her B.S. in Chemical Engineering. Her hobbies are watching anime, eating delicious food, and taking naps.

Original Script

In the Philippines, there’s this superstition that like every time you go to a wake or a funeral you’re not supposed to go straight home. You’re supposed to do this thing called pagpag, which is basically like after the wake or the funeral, like you go anywhere else that isn’t your home so like people usually like go to the mall, they don’t do anything, they just go in and walk out and then they go back home. Because that way you’re kinda like removing all of the bad energy and stopping the spirits from following you home. Because we believe like if you go straight home you’re going to bring all that bad energy with you. And the word pagpag basically means like for example if you have like a carpet and you want to remove all of the dust and hair you kind of flap it like that and all of the dust comes off and so that’s kind of like when you go into the place you’re kind of making pagpag all the bad energy from yourself.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant and her family are less traditional and do not perform pagpag after funerals. However, when the informant attends wakes or funerals with her more traditional Filipino friends, they make her perform pagpag with them. They usually go to a mall or a park for a while before returning to their homes

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in a study room at Parkside IRC.

Pagpag is a term that means “to shake off the dust or dirt” in Tagalog. Filipinos have used the term to refer to the superstition that one cannot head directly back to one’s home after attending a funeral until one has performed pagpag. This ancient practice has been preserved by Filipinos in fear of the possibility of the dead’s soul following the visitor home after the wake.

My Thoughts about the Performance

There are many superstitions about funerals or wakes that involve one being haunted by the deceased. I find it interesting that many of my Filipino friends still practice pagpag with their families after funerals. They reason that these superstitious beliefs are merely guidelines to prevent any consequences; they lose nothing for following them. In other words, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Shadow in the Burial Pot

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Chinese
Age: 55
Occupation: Funeral Counselor
Residence: Arcadia, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: March 12, 2017
Primary Language: Chinese
Other Language(s): English

Daniel is an immigrant from Hong Kong who immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities and a better life for both him and his family. Living in a poor family with seven other siblings, he immediately went to work as a police officer after receiving his high school diploma in Hong Kong. Once he moved to Los Angeles, he worked as a computer technician, and subsequently, changed his career to a funeral counselor.

Original Script

This is our Chinese Asian tradition. When we do the funeral service in the cemetery, we will try to keep our shadow away from the burial pot. We believe that if our shadow fell into the pot, our soul will be buried together, which will cause us bad luck and illness.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant heard of this superstition from a Taoist priest during a funeral service. During one particular funeral service, his shadow was about to be caught in a burial pot before the priest pulled him away and explained this superstition to him.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant at his house.

There is the belief that the shadow is the manifestation of the soul; it is commonly associated with life and death. Among many cultures around the world, chaos and darkness were believed to be the beginnings of the cosmos. Thus, people came to believe that the shadow, as a reflection of darkness, possesses life within itself. In addition, one’s shadow imitates one’s actions; it seems to emulate life, leading to the assumption that shadows are living beings. From this belief, the Chinese superstition—a person’s shadow caught in a burial pot will invite bad luck and sickness—was born.

My Thoughts about the Performance

There are many superstitions revolving around death and funerals. According to some cultures, one’s shadow is an essential part of one’s humanity, identity, or soul. Losing it would incur bad luck or even death on the person. I find it interesting how the superstition told by the informant leads to the loss of a person’s soul. I expected the consequence of a person’s shadow entering the burial pot to be the person being haunted by the deceased, because this is one of the most common penalties involving the dead.  

Indian Cremation Ritual

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Indian
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence:
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/26/17
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Informant SM is a sophomore studying Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. He is very passionate about philanthropy, specifically helping poorer parts of India and aspires to one day become a doctor. The informant tells me(AK) about an Indian tradition centered around cremation he is fond of and believes many Indian people practice.

SM: It is customary in Indian tradition to cremate someone’s body after they die. And then you take the ashes, and you put it in a place that’s very special to this person.

AK: Wow I think I’ve heard of something similar. What does this ritual mean to you?

SM: It’s a way of celebrating someone even after they have died.

AK: Where did you learn this ritual, and does your family practice it?

SM: I didn’t learn it from a specific person, but it’s just part of Indian culture. I haven’t had a chance to experience it because none of my relatives have died in my lifetime.

AK: Where would you want your ashes to be placed?

SM: Oh wow, that is a tough question (laughs). I guess I’d pick Mount Tambora, you can call it Mount Tam — in San Francisco because it’s this really beautiful hike, and it’s kind of the first hike I went on with my family. Yeah, I guess that’s where I would put mine.

I was definitely familiar with this ritual, but I had never heard the part about placing the ashes in the person’s favorite place. As I asked the question to my informant about where he would like his ashes placed, I began to think about how I would answer that question. It certainly is a very difficult question because it’s so difficult to determine someone’s favorite place. I feel like at this point in my life, I don’t really have a favorite place, but if I had to choose, I think I’d just pick my room in the house I grew up in.

 

Cat Over the Coffin

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Vietnamese
Age: 40
Occupation: Stay At Home Mom
Residence: Arcadia, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 23, 2016
Primary Language: Vietnamese
Other Language(s): English

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.