I’ve attended funerals before, but never truly got to witness what happens behind the scenes… that is until my husband lost his grandmother. I watched, learned and tried gather as much as I could to share this. It has been 8 years since her funeral, but I still remember it vividly.
Beginning the Journey – Part 1
Death is often considered the most important and sacred ritual to the Hmong. Traditional Hmong culture centers around their animism beliefs. After death, they believe a person’s soul can reincarnate into a different form, person, or even spirit. Without the ritual practices, the decease’s soul will roam for eternity. With immigration, some rituals and practices have changed.
There is no one-way on how to practice pre-rituals, burial rituals and post-burial ritual. Throughout time, rituals have varied from clan to clan, family to family. Each, although not much different, still aim at achieving the same goal. They want the deceased to cross over peacefully and make their journey home safely.
There are Hmongs who have converted to (mostly Christian faith) that no longer practice some cultural or traditional rituals. Within one clan, those who still practice animism and those who don’t can lead to disputes on matters during a funeral. Such as what should or shouldn’t be done, what can and can’t be performed.
The Last Breath
Immediately after the passing, sons or daughters will bathe the deceased and then dress him/her in ceremonial burial clothes. This practice is usually no longer as funeral directors or morticians will provide this care. The family of the deceased will sit with the body until further relations are called and told about the passing. Relations may come and say their goodbyes and view the deceased before they’re taken away until funeral services. A few days later, sons and daughters will go to the funeral home and dress the body in the ceremonial burial clothes.
Ceremonial burial clothing is significant as well and many times the clothes could have been a gift to them prior to the passing. During the dressing, another goodbye takes place. Sons, daughters and anyone else who attends the dressing will come and mourn the deceased again. A song is sung through the weeping cries. The words of the song ask the deceased to go peacefully on their journey home, go and meet with the ancestors and family members who have already gone before them.
During the dressing of Grandma, my sister-in-law’s mom also came. During the crying song, I heard her words asking Grandma to let go and go well even though it’s unfair that she has left too soon, she cries,
“Please tell my mom that I miss her and life is not the same, but we are okay. One day we will meet again.”
After dressing, all who took part must wash hands prior to leaving the building. This washing of the hands represents a soul and spirit cleanse for yourself. Having touched the deceased, is in sort “dirty” and ailments should be washed away.
The process up until funeral services can take a few weeks depending on the family. Some will wait until all immediate family members can be present for services (such as out of state or overseas travel). If not already prepared, families will have to seek funeral homes that will hold a traditional Hmong funeral. Funeral service last 3 days and for 24 hours each day. It typically starts Friday mornings until Monday. The availability of funeral homes also plays a role on the dates of services too as many funeral homes will not open their business for 24 hours and the ones who do will almost always have a waiting list.
Stories from relatives tell of back in the country where they are from, Hmong funeral services last for up to a week. There is no embalmer in their country and the body will sit out. With the sun and jungle heat, a body will decompose quickly and the smell of dead last in your nose for days.
The U.S. has certain laws on the treatment of a corpse, that is why services typically last 3 days.
Zov Hmo – Night Gatherings, Watching the Night
When someone passes away, it is a time to mourn and grieve the loss for the immediate family. Zov Hmo or the “night gatherings” typically for runs 3 nights until services begin. More times closer relation will visit the grieving family every night right up until services. This also occurs to fill in a presence that is no longer with the family. The gatherings bring on; keeping busy, sharing stories, bonding, and simply time together with laughter to fill the hearts of the grieving family.
Visitors bring food and/or drinks and service preparation for the funeral will also take place. Family elders will advise directors to coordinate each process. For example, coordinating food preparation and roles, the family can go outside their clan and seek help and in return, one day that help will be provided to their clan during a funeral.
During the gathering, joss paper is also folded in a way to replicate a boat like structure. The boat symbolizes the floating away with the soul. Joss paper, also known as ghost money, are sheets of thin paper that will be burned during and after the ceremony. Representing the treasures and money for the deceased to provide themselves with food if they get hungry and provide wealth in the afterlife.
Joss paper arrangements, monuments, and displays are also used at services. A family may create them. One display takes many hours even days as it involves folding and then creating. Hmong people have opened businesses that will create the displays for you.
The folded joss paper and displays will be taken to the funeral home. Smaller “joss paper” arrangements could also be used for decoration. Many times joss paper will continue to be folded at the funeral home once services begin. All will eventually be burned at the end prior to burial.
No matter how many times I’ve folded joss papers into boats, I always have to relearn how fold them again. Through the many nights we folded during “zov hmo” I must agree, it does keep you busy. I had and heard the most memorable conversations among family. Even though my husband and I were not married yet, I still called her Grandma. I learned and heard so many stories about her those nights, I only wish I had more time with her.
Grandma, Ntsum Tsab Vaj left us November 21, 2010. Funeral services were held December 10th thru December 13th, 2010. Mus zoo koj mog…