An ancient Vietnamese proverb states, “The sense of the dead is that of the final”, referring to the dignified and solemn manner in which family members are buried, or sent into the next life.
Though many Vietnamese identify as Buddhist, the common spiritual practice of cremation is uncommon throughout the country.
Instead, the Vietnamese farewell their dead in a distinctive burial ceremony that may last up to three years.
After death, the body of a loved one is placed into the most elaborate coffin the family can afford and kept in the home for three days in order for viewings and final goodbyes to be held.
During this time, a number of gifts may be placed into the mouth of the deceased, including chopsticks, grains of rice and gold coins for wealthier families.
Any offering to the dead is acceptable since this period marks the person’s transition from family member to respected ancestor.
The funeral ceremony itself is an elaborate affair, including on-site feasts as well as all-you-can-eat buffets back at the family home afterwards; the presence of live musicians who play traditional songs as the casket is lowered to the ground; and Buddhist monks to help the body move on to the other side.
Cemeteries and the graves within them are specifically placed according to feng shui. Each body must be laid to rest according to the position of the sun otherwise families believe they will be subject to bad luck.
Three years after death, the body is dug up, exhumed and the bones, after a process of bleaching, will be moved to a smaller casket and buried once more in the same location.
This is symbolic of the traditional Vietnamese notion that the body is of little importance, serving only as a vessel for the soul.
A large, empty coffin is not necessary as the soul will by this time have passed on to the next life.
Death, though deeply mourned in Vietnamese culture, is viewed not as the final stage in a person’s life but merely a transition into their next stage.
However, it will be the last time the soul comes into contact with its loved ones in this particular incarnation, and therefore correct burial practices are of paramount importance.