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Learning About Life and Death From the Stories of Funeral Directors in Vietnam

Sitting down with Hương Thủy and Đức Thịnh, I was able to listen to a plethora of fascinating anecdotes about Vietnam’s funerary practices.

Editor’s note: This article and accompanying photos were produced with permission from the family of the deceased.

In preparation for this feature, I listened to my friends’ stories, both Vietnamese and foreigners, about their time at a Vietnamese funeral service. I gathered every question and comment and relayed them to Thủy and Thịnh, veterans with years of providing funeral services to families in need. I discovered their own stories about the lesser-known elements of the industry and followed along with Thịnh's funeral company to better understand and appreciate the role of people working at the “border of two worlds.”

An expression of gratitude from those who remain

6:26pm, we tagged along with the Đức Thịnh Funeral Company to the home of a recently deceased to carry out the “nhập quan” (entering the coffin) ceremony.

Hương Thủy, 51, is the head of a funeral practice (trại hòm) in Xuân Hòa Commune, Xuân Lộc District, Đồng Nai Province. Thủy was once a chemistry teacher and was only exposed to the family's funeral service operation for the first time after she was married into the household and got to witness firsthand how her husband's family arranged a client’s funeral. At first, Thủy only lent a hand in miscellaneous tasks, but over time, she started to study the trade, work as a trainee, and take up more crucial jobs in the process. Now, after 26 years in the industry, Thủy is a seasoned funeral director and has been entrusted to helm the family business.

Like Thủy, Đức Thịnh, 33, became involved in the trade because of “fate.” Thịnh used to be a Chinese-language translator for a company managing a cemetery. He relocated to the business development department and had a chance to oversee more of the funeral operations. The more he immersed in the work, the more he felt in tune with funerary services. In 2012, Thịnh and a few coworkers decided to branch out and started their own practice.

For Buddhist followers, a temporary altar is set up, comprising a flower vase, glasses of water, dry tea leaves, biscuits, candles, and an incense bowl.

To Thủy and Thịnh, a funeral is not just a formality, but also an opportunity for those who remain to pay tribute and express gratitude to the deceased. It’s a display of affection between parents and children, commitment between life partners, and filial piety of the young towards the old. More than anybody else, they are well-aware of the spiritual values of a funeral ceremony.

For many years, Thủy has always felt regretful over how she couldn’t handle her mother’s funeral herself: “When she passed away, I just had my baby, so the family opted to hire a local funeral service to arrange the event.” Alas, their trust proved misplaced as the staff poorly managed and organized her funeral. “When I saw it happen, I vowed to myself to always treat my clients like a relative and wholeheartedly put in efforts even in the most trivial tasks,” she affirms. “It’s not just to help soothe their grief, but also a way for me to make up for what I couldn’t do for my own mother.”

Buddhist monks strike on wooden blocks and chant; the rhythmic sounds are believed to help the soul cross to the other side safely.

Unlike Thủy, Thịnh was able to organize a service when his mother passed. Being involved in the process every step of the way taught him the importance of the experience he brings to other families. “In Vietnamese traditions, a funeral is how we demonstrate respect for our dead relatives. People in my line of work must be as perfectionist as possible to shoulder part of the burden that the family has to go through.”

Taking time-honored rituals to the modern day

One or two decades might not be long, but it's just enough for Thủy and Thịnh to notice how funerary traditions in Vietnam are changing.

The arrival of the funeral planning industry is the most obvious shift. Thịnh explains: “Before, younger people in a family had to divide tasks amongst themselves whenever there was a funeral. But not every family has the manpower, knowledge and experience to take care of everything.” Funeral service coordinators were born as a solution for such a lack of know-how. “Being in this trade requires a sense of dauntlessness. At whatever hour, when a client calls to make requests, you have to be ready to provide full support.”

Left: A hand of young bananas placed on the abdomen of the deceased as they are believed to have the power to dispel “death vibes.” Right: There are several reasons why families put votive money in the coffin, including to help the soul “bribe” demons on the way to the netherworld and to give the deceased some “startup capital” to begin a new life on the other side.

Families of the recently dead contact Thịnh and Thủy via their hotline. They provide the family with options regarding funeral packages or other customizations. Once an agreement is reached, funeral staff travels to the household in one to two hours to beautify, wash, embalm or even freeze the body if needed.

On the date of the burial or cremation, the staff helps with the transportation to the crematorium or cemetery. After the ritual is done, a monk usually “leads” the soul home for the family to carry out a tranquilizing ceremony. This moment marks the end of a standard Buddhist funeral.

All these steps might sound convoluted, but in actuality, the process today is already an abridged version compared to traditional ones decades ago. For one, the visitation period is shorter. Vietnam’s climate is getting hotter every year, speeding up the decay while the need to return to daily routines is also greater for today’s family members. Most funerals nowadays span a maximum of four days while some families opt for only one or two days.

Time to move the body to the coffin after the embalming. It’s an emotionally draining moment for the family as they won’t be able to see their loved one anymore.

Funeral costumes are also simplified today, according to Thịnh and Thủy. “Before, family members must wear straw hats and belts made of thorny vines, and walk with bamboo canes. Today, it’s up to the family to decide what to wear,” Thủy recalls.

Most households today choose white shirts, pants, headbands, and face veils made out of gauze cotton for the occasion. Some past customs like the “phạn hàm” ritual (putting rice and money in the mouth of the dead) or “quay cữu” ritual (turning the coffin at midnight) are also left out.

The empty spaces in the coffin are often filled with tea leaves, dry jasmine, dry sticky rice grains, and sage powder to dehydrate the body.

All of these modifications show how Vietnamese families adapt to the pace of contemporary life. Still, Thịnh and Thủy believe that the funeral process, in general, must continue to transform to modernize the ritual, though it’s important that exemptions can’t leave out crucial events or commit faux pas.

Human connection amid tragedies

In their time providing this service, Thủy and Thịnh have been through numerous dramatic developments that one might think could only exist in movies. Combative siblings, vicious inheritance fights, rich children abandoning their deceased parents to a cold and lonely funeral — all are not that uncommon.

On the other end of the spectrum, they both witnessed many instances where the warmth and sympathy between strangers shine amid a harrowing demise. Of course, they are also willing to provide assistance themselves, with monetary value or emotional help, when someone is really in a tough position.

The altar is placed in front of the coffin with the name and photo of the deceased.

“A young couple once sought me out, carrying a stillborn baby. A shady abortion clinic swindled VND30 million from them to terminate the pregnancy, while the operation often costs VND3–5 million at a reputable hospital,” Thịnh reminisces. “They wept and asked me for help, promising to repay the money in later months. Of course, how could I do that to another human being? I volunteered to give the baby a service for free and gave them some money for a ride back to their hometown.”

On one occasion, Thủy got a call to organize a service for an elder who died suddenly; the call came from his neighbors. “We had completed the embalming for a while before his daughter got home. She was middle-aged, working at the nearby brick kiln,” Thủy recalls. She burst into tears finding out he passed away, partly because of grief, but also because they were too poor to afford a funeral. Thủy decided to give them a VND3 million discount and told them to pay the remaining VND4 million after getting the funeral donation.

The family bowed before the coffin as per instructions from the monk.

Several months later, the daughter sought out Thủy, bringing with her an envelope containing the donation, in addition to money she got after pawning away the house’s papers. “I found out that she had never seen VND4 million in the flesh before, and thought that the funeral donation wouldn’t be enough, so she went to the pawnshop.”

Funeral remains a tearful, heart-wrenching occasion in the mind of many. For some, it’s somehow a time to put all their anger and selfish attitudes on display. In between those emotional extremes, there’s also room for altruism, affection, and kind-hearted expressions of humanity.

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