DANANG - “Most people think Buddhism is the biggest religion in Vietnam. It’s not. We have a different national religion. We worship our ancestors,” said my Vietnamese friend, Jack, over his mother’s homemade snake wine. His sentiment is one I’ve heard repeatedly, from even the most Western-influenced and sophisticated of Vietnamese. While ancestor veneration isn’t unique to Vietnam, I’ve come to appreciate it as a foundational facet of Vietnamese culture and one of the largest remnants of Confucian influence. As I’ve understood it, ancestor veneration tells of the admirable strength of the family unit and the beautiful Vietnamese way of dealing with death.
Family comes first here. Most homes house three generations, and children commonly live at home until they marry. Children grow up with a powerful respect and feeling of responsibility towards their families and their elders. The eldest sibling’s responsibility usually includes moving in with and taking care of parents and grandparents, as well as helping to fund their younger siblings. Let’s call it the antithesis of the nursing home.
In fact, Vietnamese language structure demands that you refer to everyone you speak to with a specific pronoun denoting their gender and age in relation to you. People must be constantly aware of where they stand in the age hierarchy, and this childhood respect for elders lasts through life.
When someone dies, especially an older person, the existing respect and obligation continues and even escalates to a different level. When people die, their survivors do not consider them “gone.” Families gather regularly at the altars present in almost every home to pray to their ancestor, to ask them for help, to keep them involved. Often this happens on the first and fifteenth days of every lunar month, and at several annual holidays, like Remembrance Day, when everyone goes to visit and clean up their relatives’ gravesites. Photos of the deceased, incense, food, fake money, and other offerings are often present. Ancestor veneration bonds families together in ways I don’t think we have in the USA and helps instill the aforementioned reverence for ancestors and family.
The Vietnamese customs of mourning too reflect the veneration of family and ancestors. When someone dies, their body remains in the house, where family members clean it with alcohol and water, and dress it special white death clothes. The immediate family usually wears white outfits, and mourners wear white headbands. Rather than black, white dominates Vietnamese funerals. The body then basically lies in state in the center of the house until burial.
Then there is a giant party. Everyone is invited, from coworkers to neighbors to your friend’s friend that got invited randomly. And while customs vary all over the country, people feast and celebrate. In the north, the music and mood is traditionally more somber. In the south though, the music I’ve encountered is this interesting jazzy sound, sounding almost straight out of New Orleans, with trumpets and saxophones (see the video below!). I met one jazz musician who moved here expecting to have a lot of trouble finding a part to replace in his saxophone, only to discover they were plentiful because of the funereal usage. Saigon especially is known for some crazy, drunken funeral parties. If the deceased loved karaoke, you sing karaoke until the wee hours of the morning. As one southerner told me, no one in the neighborhood will complain about the noise because they know it’s a funeral.
The parties do not stop there. Some families celebrate their deceased again on the 49th and 100th days after the death. Then, every year, the family will continue to celebrate the deceased’s death anniversary in a party that completely outdoes any birthday parties. Birthdays aren’t very big here. But deathdays are huge.
And then there is Tết, the Lunar New Year, which is the biggest holiday of the year and usually falls in February. As one Vietnamese seminarian put it in his thesis on ancestor veneration, “For the Vietnamese people, it is the equivalent of Thanksgiving Day, Remembrance Day, New Year’s Day, and birthdays all combined into one massive celebration.” While the official celebration lasts five to seven days (depending on the lunar calendar), people take weeks off work, and everyone travels back to their ancestral village. There are many traditions and customs associated with the holiday that vary from locality, but the big theme remains family, living and dead.
The first part of the celebration (new years eve) is all about the ancestors, where as one Vietnamese woman told me, “we pray at the altar and invite all the ancestors to come celebrate with us.” I love this: every year, you reunite the entire family, dead or alive, far or near. And at the end of the holiday you bid them farewell (but only until the next year).
Ancestor veneration is widely considered part of Vietnamese culture, not really a religion. In fact, most of Vietnam identifies as not religious (remember, it is still a titular Communist country). The Vietnamese Catholic Church officially asserts that ancestor veneration does not conflict with the tenets of Christianity. Christian ancestor altars usually feature Christian imagery as well.
There is a Vietnamese saying: “The Orientals believe in the dead, while the Occidentals believe only in death.” To me, the Vietnamese deal with the elderly and death in general in much healthier way than we do in the USA. Instead of the intense but compressed and compartmentalized funeral procedures we follow, the Vietnamese dead are celebrated over the long term. Survivors aren’t able to push away the pain of mourning because they remain regularly reminded of their deceased, both through these celebrations and regular time at the altar.
It would make me more comfortable about death to know that my family will continue to honor me, gather together and talk to me, and have some great parties and great times in my honor. I’m thinking I might like a Vietnamese funeral someday.