Whilst my fellow directors were attending and leading workshops at the Good Death Festival in the Czech Republic I was off on an adventure of my own – a spur of the moment life’s too short trip to Vietnam but of course I couldn’t quite resist having a little look at how death is done there.
It’s estimated that some 75% of the population follow what’s called a Vietnamese folk religion. It’s not an organised structure as such, more a set of local worship traditions and family rituals and influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism and no doubt by the many world invaders and colonisers Vietnam has endured in its history.
Traditional funerals can last for anything from one to three days or more. Browsing through a local market in Hoi An we came across the start of a funeral procession so we stopped to observe and pay our respects. Asking a neighbour how long the procession would last we were told about nine hours so we bid our farewells and carried on shopping.
Our visit to the Imperial City in Hue, palace of one of the thirteen emperors that once ruled the country, coincided with the annual ritual to commemorate the death of one of the of the emperors, culminating in the ceremonial burning of the emperors clothes and shoes to aid his journey to the next world.
For ordinary folk more cemetery space is needed, especially for those who don’t have easy access to the town and city cemetery, so small burial sites are beginning to be seen, and you may see headstones in gardens or randomly placed in rice and vegetable fields where people are tilling the land around them.
In Hanoi we visited the huge mausoleum where the preserved body of Ho Chi Minh can be viewed. As Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and President until his death in 1969, Ho Chi Minh lived as simply as he could, choosing not to reside in the Presidential Palace, but in a specially built stilt-house in the grounds. He left instructions for his body to be cremated and his ashes spread to North, Central, and South Vietnam, but government officials decided it was to be embalmed instead.
So we may well leave our wishes clearly recorded, music chosen, dress code requested, resting place carefully considered, family members to be – or not be – invited, it doesn’t mean those we leave behind are going to take any notice. Our funerals may well be about us, but they’re for we leave behind.