Hmong Culture

Hmong Funeral: Services

If you ever get invited to a Hmong funeral, here are some things that you may see or hear. Or maybe you just want to know what’s going on. If you go, expect a full house. Even Hmong who attend the same service can be strangers to each other, but all are appreciated and welcomed.

Beginning the Journey – Part 2

Services

Services usually start on a Friday morning. Once the deceased arrives at the funeral site, a song is sung to start the day. The one who performs this, called a “taw ke” would be someone who has “mastered” into this role, this role is mainly male. He also holds two halves of dried bamboo stalks, called “txheej ntawg”. The stalk halves are about 4 inches long. During the song, he continues to throw the halves on the ground as a way to speak to the deceased. As the stalks land, face up or face down, it represents an answer. Both stalks laying opposite, one up, one down is the acceptance of the deceased to start his/her journey.

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The Qeej Player, Art by @studiolorao

After this ritual, a “qeej”, an instrument made of bamboo, will be played. The song that is being played on the qeej is a song of sorrow as life has ended. The qeej will also be accompanied by a drum. The drum is made especially for funerals and hung upon a tripod or structure that can hold the drum off the ground. The tripod represents the house of the deceased as traditionally, drums would hang from the homes that the deceased lived in. Most funeral homes don’t have this capability so structures are built. The man who plays the qeej will move around circulating the drum. The drums go hand in hand with the qeej as to guide the deceased on their journey.

If you attend services while this ritual is taken place, be aware that the sound of the drum is loud. You will be able to hear the beating of the drum from outside the building. There are three songs that take place with this ritual and spread out to be performed throughout service. It is said that you should not follow the rhythm of the beat as it will lead you on a bad path. The beat and sound are intended for the deceased and spirits to follow.

Animals will be butchered as a sacrifice that will assist the deceased on their journey and feed the many who will arrive. The butchering does not take place at the funeral site, but the meat is brought in by the truckloads if the site has the ability for food prep. If no kitchen or food prep area is available, this will take place at the family’s home and prepared dishes will be brought to the funeral to serve.

Men will usually lead the prepping of the meat. Women will cook meals, but there are certain dishes that are made together. The continuous feasts for family and guests will go on the entire length of funeral services with scheduled breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but always having food and drinks readily available. With the 24 hours of viewing, coffee is a must at the services. The meals provided are a way to pay homage to the guest for attending and an offering to the spirit of the deceased. Traditionally, the sacrifice has been of cattle and pigs. Chickens are also sacrificed, but mainly used for rituals.

It was so freezing cold, we were not able to prepare most of the meat from cattle. The funeral site did not have a kitchen. Meals were cooked outside under a canopy only to be heated with kerosene heaters. Either the cooks were freezing or the meat was. One night, we had no choice and opted to cater dinner.

The youngest daughter should remain with the body to keep watch. There will also be other family members who sit and keep watch. To be able to reincarnate, Hmong people do not bury the deceased with any material that is unnatural. Any buttons, zippers, strings plastic would have been removed. The casket will be made of wood. The deceased is watched so visitors who come to view the deceased does not tamper with the journey.

Viewers of the deceased can drop materials or intentionally hide articles into the casket. This will cause disruption to the journey and they will not be able to cross to their ancestors. The family is also to watch that tears from viewers to do not fall in or on the deceased. It is believed that if tears make contact, the journey will be made rough as traveling through a rainstorm.

Grandma did not have a living daughter so the role of watching her fell upon her youngest son’s wife. Myself along with many women throughout the day sat with her watching and to console the crying visitors.

Offering Rituals

There are three daily meals prepared by the men in the family. At each meal, the dish consist of rice and pork, is given to the deceased body by the eldest son. While this takes place, the qeej, plays the ceremonial song.

One ritual that must be completed is payment of debt. If the deceased has debts, the family will make payment by offering the joss paper. Any unpaid debt will bring bad luck to the living family along with the deceased. Words are cited while joss paper is burned to pay off debt.

During Grandma’s funeral, I recall my father-in-law receiving a phone call telling him that Grandma had borrowed so and so’s money. She has not paid them back. She must pay it back before service is over. I didn’t get to witness this ritual at her funeral. I just found this part really interesting and in my opinion, rude.

Guest

A Hmong funeral is not only for family, but open to any guest who would like to come to pay respect. Hmong people, even though being of a different clan, will come and show support and mourn. It also believed that it brings on luck and good fortune to attend funerals in or out of your clan to assist the grieving family. Sympathy arranged flowers or joss paper displays are also brought, but along with flowers, visitors give monetary aid called “tshav ntuj” translated to “sunshine. The money is to contribute and assist the family to cover the funeral cost. There is a saying when sunshine is received called “sunshine thanks”

  • This video shows ritual of receiving sunshine, “Sunshine Thanks”

Thank you, Neng Now for allowing me to share this intimate moment video he made during his Grandmother’s funeral.

Hmong believe that when there is death, evil spirits are present and watching. They are waiting to take spirits and souls. If you should happen to slip, trip and fall, during that second of the scare, your own spirit has fallen (poob plig). This allows your spirit to be taken by the evil spirits. Children are watched closely so this does not occur. Shamans are on guard for this purpose. They perform a brief ritual to ask for the individual’s spirit back telling evil spirits to leave.

During Grandma’s funeral, there was a huge snow storm. It just so happen to be the worst snowstorm that year. As we were cleaning, my sister-in-law, who is white, was taking garbage out to the dumpster. She slipped on an ice patch. A shaman (our great uncle), lit incense and recited the calling. My sister-in-law had to stand by the place she fell until the ritual was done.

Closing Services

The final ritual before burial is for descendants is to help pay respect and send the deceased off. This is the most important to some, of all rituals that take place. A celebration to them living and goodbye to their life expiring. The ceremony starts with a song to inform the deceased they have died and need to begin the journey to the spirit world. The process starts in the late evening of Sunday and proceeds until Monday morning before burial. Descendants kneel on the floor and remain in the position for the entire ceremony. With the length of the ceremony, kneeling has descended to sitting.

Each family member holds two incense and bowing is done to send the deceased off and pay respect to the deceased. The bowing is done in a two sequence motion and made after the “taw kev” (one who shows the way) says a sentence or two. The sayings are asking that the family; bow for the life of the deceased, bow to what they have brought you, bow to say goodbye. bow to your ancestors, bow to the guest, and bow to the journey.

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Image by Anni Yang

Grandma’s funeral service started on a Friday morning when doors to the funeral home opened. In the 3 days that services took place, I slept 2 hours. Many stayed for this ceremony and assisted with keeping us awake while they would catch up on sleep from the side. Lack of sleep can make you hear and see things that may or may not be. I’ve heard many scary stories that happen at funerals and it just so happened, that some experiences occurred during Grandma’s funeral also.

-Anna MV

Anna MV

A Hmong woman practicing life finding art in everything. Blogger of Family, Life, Culture, Autism, Self Awarenes

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6 Comments

  1. Every religion or community have their own customs and traditions…thank you for an informative article

    1. Thanks for reading 😊

      1. 🙏🙏👋

  2. You have elaborated on each funeral ritual. A learning experience of different customs.

  3. Does the joss paper is of value to pay for debt? Just wondering ….. And i agree, i think it’s rude, the dead and the living is not to be bothered by the material things … It is no longer of value in the face of death…..

    1. Hi Jeferson! Yes, it can be used for paying off debt, thanks for reading.

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