No 3, Vol.10 , September    October 2015

At a Hmong funeral, when the pipes play, it is to celebrate life

The Hmong people believe that a kind and righteous person will reincarnate to be a human in the next life. A bad person will become an animal.
Therefore, the Hmong in general and the white Hmong in particular, particularly value human feelings. To them, ‘death means farewell,’ and so funerals are solemn and symbolic. Dead people over three months of age must be worshipped as ‘fresh spirits’ at the time of death and as ‘dried spirits’ 13 days after the burial. The Hmong don’t commemorate the dead every year as the Viet do. The dried spirit funeral is the last ritual they do to make the spirit go to the ancestral domain forever.
When somebody dies, the family shoots a rifle or blows a horn three times to announce the event. Youngsters in the house are sent to inform the kin and to invite a shaman and pipe artists for the funeral rituals. Nobody is allowed to cry before the shaman comes. When a wife dies, after being informed, the wife’s family acquires some offerings to bring to the husband’s house. Similarly, if a husband dies, his family would bring some offerings to the wife’s house. The purpose is to share or contribute to the expenses of the funeral. It is also to allow the living members of the family to retell details of the death. The size of the offerings depends on the family’s economic conditions. It can be a couple of chickens, a pig, a cow or even bigger.
This conversation is conducted through pipe blowing. When the sound of pipe of the dead person’s kin means a question is being asked, the other family has to express the answer in pipe music in such a way that dead’s kin believe that the person has really died. If the answer is not expressive or convincing enough, the deceased’s relatives might think that the person is still alive. They will blow their pipe to express their disbelief and turn their back to go home, and that would mean trouble. To avoid having to beg them to bring the offering inside, the host family has to convince the pipe blower to say ‘no, no, the person has really deceased; or you can go inside the house to see for yourselves…’ Having understood each other, the two parties would go inside to discuss the matters of the funeral and asset division in details.
Unlike those of other ethnicities, the Hmong coffins are bigger at the head and smaller at the foot. They use a freshly-made piece of linen to wash and clean the deceased body. Then they dress the dead with three to five sets of traditional costumes without using plastic buttons. They wind a turban on the person’s head, tie three belts around the body, the knots at the front. Then they put socks on the dead person, if it’s a man, or shin guards, if it’s a woman.
Told tales say that the Hmong used to be driven away from their lands by the Han, so in Hmong funeral, some men would carry machetes, spears and guns and run around the house, blowing horns and shooting the guns to chase away Han ghosts, not letting them attack the deceased.
Those Hmong who have migrated to Dak Lak failed to follow strictly their old funeral customs. Mr Hoang Van Bang, head of Noh Prong Village, Hoa Phong Commune, Krong Bong District told us, ‘The white Hmong who migrated to Tay Nguyen, Central Highlands, have simplified significantly their funeral rituals. Most of them skip the ‘dried spirit’ part of the funeral, because now they think the dead go immediately to heaven, there is no need for extra expenses and they abandon the grave right after the burial. They also don’t make offerings and divide assets anymore.’ Hmong funerals used to last three to four days. After a government decree applying modern styles to weddings, funerals and festivities, they now last only one to two days.
In general, Hmong funerals are not overly tragic. When the pipes are blown, all participants begin to dance and chant. The ritual usually begins early in the morning. The dancing and chanting under pipe music and drum beat are unique features of their funerals. The shaman sings traditional songs in Hmong, which are soft and slow, to express deep sympathy to the deceased. But they are not too sad, not too mournful. Rather, they sound like messages to the living, reminding them to love and care for each other.n
(According to the words of an old man in Noh Prong Village, Hoa Phong Commune, Krong Bong District, Dak Lak Province)

By Mai Viet Tang