Generations of ethnic Mong people in Vietnam have sought redemption and salvation for departed relatives through unique funeral rituals.
Funeral musicians loudly blew their khen, a Vietnamese windpipe, while circling the funeral area, showering the space with a melancholic medley of enigmatic sound.
Cutting through the noise was the nauseating smell of freshly slaughtered cows and pigs mixed with the pungent scent of corn wine.
The aromas from these Mong delicacies were inescapable to funeral visitors.
The funeral was for Vu Khai Lu, 61, a resident of Chung Pa B Hamlet, nestled in Meo Vac District in the northern province of Ha Giang.
Lu’s body had been casually wrapped in cloth as it lay on a bamboo stretcher hung in the heart of the main chamber under strips of colorful votive paper dangling from the ceiling above.
All eyes were fixed on the shamans as they repeatedly poured wine and spooned rice into a kettle and pot placed next to the body’s head.
Khen and other traditional instruments, still playing, made the gloomy funeral scene even drearier. When the music paused, however, mourners took advantage of the opportunity to refill each other’s wine glasses.
The melodies are meant to guide the perished person towards heaven and reincarnation in their next life.
Every night during the funerary service, the shamans walk around the home to the sound of khen music with wooden swords and handfuls of ranh grass to ‘fight against the enemy’.
On the porch, three big pots of water boiled over a blazing fire.
Nearby a group of local youths who had just butchered a large pig were dividing the meat into portions.
Fresh pig legs and ribs were hanging everywhere.
As a traditionally dressed couple and two young men struggled to guide a large pig towards the corpse, a shaman began tying a linen strap to the animal’s neck before fastening the other end to the deceased’s left hand while mumbling softly.
The animal was then immediately slaughtered in front of the couple.
Half an hour later, another couple brought another pig to the body, which was also slain immediately following a similar ritual.
According to Vu Mi Su, a retired teacher and elder in the hamlet who presided over the funeral, the strap-tying rite is meant as a presentation of the pig as a gift for the deceased in the afterworld.
Relatives, in-laws, and friends customarily bring a four-legged animal to funerals – either a cow, pig or goat – depending on their financial situation and relationship with the dead person’s family, Su added.
Portions of the meat are given to the host family to treat guests, the animals’ owners, and musicians during the days-long service.
A shaman ‘feeds’ Vu Khai Lu’s dead body while it lies on a stretcher during his three-day funeral. Photo: Tuoi Tre
By the end of Lu’s funeral, a total of 20 pigs, three cows, and a number of goats were offered, a modest showing compared to larger services which can receive dozens of pigs and goats and more than 10 cows.
“The host family cannot reject the offerings and are thus indebted to the animal owners. The family will give back the exact number of cattle heads when they eventually attend the funerals of their visitors,” Su added.
Before bringing the dead to their final resting place, Mong people traditionally leave the bodies to sun-dry in their yard for half a day.
The perished, including men, are dressed in traditional linen outfits for women before burial.
Experts on Mong culture attribute the long-standing practice of laying the corpse on a stretcher to the people’s mountainous habit and the painstaking difficulty of transport in the area.
The bulky coffin is typically placed in the graveyard before the rites are performed and the body is carried to the final resting place by stretcher.
Most corpses give off a foul odor after two or three days of lying bare during the funeral.
Longer services, meanwhile, pose health hazards, as a number of cases have been recorded in which the living have contracted contagious diseases from the dead who are placed uncovered on the stretcher.
The most extreme case recorded to date is an attack of meningococcal meningitis, caused by a type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitides.
The disease became an epidemic in the community after a days-long funeral in Can Chu Phin District in the early 1990s, eventually claiming 13 lives.
In recent years, an increase in awareness of the health perils involved in the practice has led some Mong families in Ha Giang Province to adjust the rituals and instead place their perished relatives in coffins shortly after their last breath.
However, to create widespread changes to the practice would take a revolution. It seems the rituals are hardwired among the Mong people, who fear any changes may do harm to the future generations, Su noted.
Sung Dai Hung, director of the Ha Giang Department of Labor, War Invalids, and Social Affairs, said it would be incredibly difficult to sway beliefs held by members of the lineage, and change is impossible without a consensus being reached.
A few years earlier, his entire extended family convened a meeting before hesitantly deciding to put Hung’s late father in a coffin shortly following his death.
They did not begin adopting the new practice until three years later, when nothing wrong has happened to the dead man’s grave or the lineage.