Vietnamese Death Traditions

Like death-related rituals in mainstream American culture, Vietnamese rituals are meant to help the family say goodbye to the deceased and cope with the loss.

Customs of Vietnamese death rituals vary depending on the ethnicity, religion and region of Vietnam, but certain similarities exist through the rituals, according to Ethnomed contributor Dieu-Hein T. Hoang. The extended family and community involvement with the ritual is intense at first but then gradually lessens over a two- to three-year period. The following does not encompass all traditions observed in Vietnam, but provides an example of some death rituals.

Attending the Body

Once it has been determined that a person is about to die, the family takes the dying family member home. Here, the sick loved one is constantly looked after. Other family members and friends are contacted to visit the home and say goodbye to the dying person. Each family member helps out by using his or her special talents to try to ease pain or improve quality of life of the dying loved one in some way. For instance, if a family member is a good cook, he may prepare food for the sick person. When death seems imminent, all family from the oldest to the youngest are called in to say goodbye for the last time.

After the Death

Following death, the body is still looked after constantly by the family. For preparation for the funeral, which may be held within the home, the body is cleaned and dressed carefully so that it looks presentable. A picture of the deceased, along with flowers and burning incense, is set up in the room as a small memorial. The body is then placed in a coffin and a prayer service is held in the home where the loved one died. The body is then removed from the house and taken to the cemetery, where the funeral is held.

After the Funeral

Following the funeral, the body is lowered into the ground. Incense is burnt and respects are paid to other relatives who have passed away and are buried in the same cemetery. This can help the family to say goodbye to the loved one, as it helps them see that the deceased is in the company of other ancestors who have passed away.

Prohibitions and Mourning Clothing

Depending on the relationship to the deceased and how close they were, a family member may not marry or make any other major life decisions for two years following the death of the loved one. Family members are also not allowed to wear brightly coloured clothing. During subsequent memorial services for the deceased, family members may wear black or white fabric signifying that they are in mourning. The grieving period for immediate family is generally two years. After two years, the mourning period is over which is signified by the burning of the fabric.

Death Anniversary

In addition to the above traditions, the death anniversary is celebrated. Three days after the funeral, incense is burnt, flowers are brought and prayers are spoken for the deceased. Once a week, over a period of 49 days, a memorial service is given to further help the family grieve and remember the deceased. A service is then held 100 days after the death, then another is held one full year after the death.

Continuation of Life

At this point, the death anniversary continues to be held once a year, but life is allowed to go on. Family members may marry and make other major life decisions. The deceased is now considered to be a dead ancestor, in the company of other ancestors.