(No.7, Vol.3, Aug 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
At about half past four on a Sunday morning, my cell phone rang unrelentingly, ‘she [i.e. my mother-in-law] is exhausted already. You, maternal uncle and wife, must come home immediately!’
I foresaw this, so I hastily called the driver, packed some clothes, and returned [from Hanoi to Hai Duong.]
We were in the midst of a record cold spell that had gripped the area for the last dozen years. The mist was thick, as if it would never evaporate — a dense, white vapour that descended from the sky to linger over the earth.
My mother-in-law had already died at 3.30 a.m. We were informed that she was ‘exhausted’ so that we wouldn’t be overwhelmed and get into an accident on the way. I eventually learned that my husband’s older sister had wanted to call us home since that afternoon, but my mother-in-law scolded her, ‘They’ll be home by tomorrow morning! Why do you have to call? It’s not like I’m already dead and you’ve got to rush!’ Poor my mother-in-law, even up until the time she died, she was still afraid to make her son worry and, since her illness allowed her to remain cognizant up until the moment of her death, she never suspected that she would pass away so quickly—only a few hours before we were able to arrive.
A funeral in Hai Duong.
Actually, from the time that my mother-in-law started to become bedridden (about the last month and a half of her life), every weekend we would return to visit her. During the lunar New Year, I returned to be with her for four days. This week, my husband was on a business trip until Saturday, so we couldn’t go home until Sunday. Who could have suspected that it would be too late?
We called to inform everyone. For every group of relatives, we only called one key person, yet my head was already spinning to the point that, when I heard ‘Hello?’, I was stupefied, not knowing with whom I was talking.
As for the fortuity or portentousness of the day and hour, I’m not entirely clear, but we had to pay homage to my mother-in-law that Sunday afternoon and escort her to her grave at seven in the morning the next day. What a mad rush! I guessed right away that people wouldn’t be able to make it out from Hanoi to Hai Duong, and I couldn’t imagine how anyone would be able to make it up from Saigon.
The visitation ceremony began at 13:30, right after the shrouding of the corpse, but no hour was set for its conclusion. Except for one-and-a-half hours during which we ate dinner, we stood vigil next to the coffin and received guests for about six hours on end, since the final guest did not arrive until 21:30.
Children and grandchildren, relatives and in-laws, neighbours, government agencies and organizations, and then friends and the co-workers of children and grandchildren came. Some lived nearby, some came out from the countryside, some returned from Hanoi. Also arriving were a mass of courtesy garlands sent by my husband’s friends and collaborators from provinces and cities throughout north and south Vietnam. The post office was so considerate in handling them; although they delivered the whole lot of garlands at one time, they registered each flower package as if it were an individual party coming to pay their respects. Moreover, the female postal agent shuffled sedulously in and out for ever so many wreaths. A few even arrived late the next morning (or more accurately, the memorial ceremony was pushed ahead). The postal van even had no choice but to patiently follow the funeral procession all the way to the gravesite to announce deliveries.
Each party of guests that came to pay their respects had a white-uniformed funeral worker, whom we hired, to guide them in and carry their wreaths. The ceremonial envelopes were not held like they are in Hanoi, but rather placed on a plate of offerings (usually a bunch of bananas with the possible addition of a box of fine liquor). The first time I went to a funeral in Hai Duong and saw all of the parties carrying in such a plate of offerings, I was furtively concerned, ‘I wonder what they do with those bunches of green bananas over there?’ Afterwards, I eventually learned that the head of the funeral prepared several such plates so that guests could bring them in and avoid embarrassment.
Our family hired four funeral workers. Aside from the person who led in the guests, there were two people standing next to the bier and one person who stood at the door, lighting incense in advance to be handed over to the guests. This is something we picked up from the funeral home. Normally, when a funeral is held in the home, the guests bring their own incense.
In Hai Duong, guests who come to pay their respects don’t prostrate in veneration or give homage to the deceased, but usually they need to say words of condolence. The sentence repeated most often was, ‘Having heard the news that the late elder had culminated at the full age of one hundred (a folk aphorism for a complete life) , we come bearing incense with which to respectfully pay homage to the venerated soul of the elder and share our condolences with her family.’ The deceased grandmother’s eldest son then had to thank the guests on behalf of the family. After that, the guests eventually made their way around the coffin, past the rows of descendants, and then outside.
Because my mother-in-law had taken refuge in a Buddhist pagoda, a group of visitors along with her Tinh Tien Bodhisattva Society also came to recite poems, chant sutras, and circle around her bier three times — not to mention that earlier, when guests were still sparse, the elderly women of the society (about thirty of them) came to sit together in the courtyard to chant sutras on my mother-in-law’s behalf for several tens of minutes. Surely, my mother will quickly go to salvation, I thought.
Fortunately, my village no longer retains the custom of forcing descendants to wail in heart-rending cries like in the old days. The business of sobbing incessantly was reserved only for the filial music band and its one highly professional singer. Plaintive, sorrowful music may be a matter of course, but each time the singer raised his voice, everyone could not help but feel pity. The default song was a cry for one’s mother, which the singer would play at his whim. It just took someone to go out and whisper to the band (and of course, give a tip as well) for the music to immediately start playing. Moreover, the singer would raise his voice with ‘introductions.’ For instance:
‘Grandmother, this is your eldest grandson sired by your eldest son! I am currently studying abroad in England, so I cannot return to be with you…’
Then an entire lavish, rueful story about the grandmother and grandson was told, ‘When I was an infant, grandmother and grandfather cuddled me. Grandmother, you hoped that I would mature into a talented adult. I was endeavouring to succeed and establish a reputation so as to return to be with you, but you already hurriedly absconded away without having waited for me to return with honour…’
Then nephew A mourned his aunt; niece B bewailed her aunt-in-law, and younger sister cried for her older sister. No matter whom in whatever relation to the deceased, the professional singer was able to handle them all.
Yet it’s not that they were ready-made songs, because I noticed that every time the words and considerations varied — even though three different nephews and nieces would grieve their maternal aunt together, or even when the grandmother’s oldest grandson of her first born son grieved three times.
Not only did the filial band’s singer have an artistic flair, the funeral’s MC did as well. Normally, the MC is responsible for announcing the parties that come to pay their respects and the sequence and times of the funeral’s events, and that is all. If they are goodhearted, when there aren’t any visitors, the MC might expound the biography of the deceased. Generally speaking, the MC’s job is relegated to using administrative language. But this MC was a professional. Besides the affective, extremely doleful quality of his voice, the MC was quite versatile and proficient. When guests turned to leave, the MC spoke on behalf of the head of the family, ‘Please, grandfather and grandmother, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, sit and drink a cup of plain water with the head of the funeral.’
When guests were sparse, the MC proactively filled in the gaps with my mother’s biography, but with emotive language, ‘Our late great-grandmother was born in the year X. She was someone who hailed from the native village of Y. She was born into an impoverished peasant family (which wasn’t true, but that did not bother anyone). When she grew up, she married into the Z family. Throughout her life, she laboured assiduously…’
Whenever someone requested it of him, the MC spoke to the deceased on their behalf. For example, ‘Grandmother, this is your most senior grandson begotten by your oldest son. Do you remember the day on which I left? You saw me off all the way to the bus station. You gave me some money and…’
In general, the MC liberally fabricated narratives based on common stories in life and embellished them with his own imagination. Whether they were accurate or not, he was neither rewarded nor punished. The main thing was that he expressed people’s feelings to the deceased.
At midnight came the coffin-raising ceremony, which was referred to as the ‘turning over’ of my mother. The coffin was raised and lowered three times. Then her children, grandchildren, and relatives wailed, crying out to the departed. I found it odd, since I had believed that the custom of ululating had been discarded and that crying out loud was forbidden to prevent the departed soul from remaining attached to her descendants so that she might finally pass over to liberation. But it turns out that people still cry out lugubriously when they ‘turn over the body,’ albeit its purpose remains unclear.
The next morning at about seven o’clock, the memorial ceremony was held. Then they began transporting the coffin.
Because my mother had taken refuge in Buddha, at the head of the funeral procession were the women (known as the elders) of the Tinh Tien Bodhisattva Society, who bore the bridge on their heads, meaning that they carried a long golden piece of fabric from the Buddhist pagoda over their heads, in the manner of the tail end of the lion when a lion dance team performs. The cloth was attached to my mother’s photograph, which was placed on the funeral procession sedan, to a symbol of Buddhism on the front of the sedan; it represented the escorting of my mother’s departed spirit to return to the realm of the Buddha. I heard that some localities do not allow funeral processions to be so exuberant. Surely, they think that doing so is superstitious. However, my family’s funeral procession was still able to proceed, because the precinct authorities were among the participants in my family’s funeral committee.
Following after the bridge-bearing elders was the filial music band and then four of our sisters and brothers donning funerary garb and pacing backwards in front of the funeral sedan to entreat it onwards. Then a group of people on foot, two taxis carrying wreaths, and several kinds of escort vehicle.
As soon as we went out the door, it started to drizzle, adding to the chilliness. I managed to hastily grab a niece’s black vest and asked someone to hold it for me, but I didn’t dare pull it over my funeral garb. Thus, I had no recourse but to grit my teeth and endure the frigidity. We paced backwards for easily an entire kilometre for an ever-so-long period of time. Someone got distressed and told the bridge-bearing elders to stop and get in the car. The elders felt chagrined because they could not fulfil their obligations to my mother. We had to apologize, comfort the elders, and go on pacing backwards the entire way we had originally intended.
We got in the vehicles. The whole procession snaked along at slower than a snail’s pace. It turned out that my family’s driver, who was transporting the bonze at the head of the procession, had believed that the coffin would not be lowered into the grave until 8:45, so he intentionally dragged out the time for another hour on the road. Someone had to run ahead and tell him that that was only the latest possible time by which we had to be there before the procession could finally snake along at an accelerated pace.
After lowering the coffin into the grave, the bridge-bearing elders once again chanted the sutras. They chanted for a very long time before eventually finishing. We had to rush and beseech the elders to go out to the vehicles and return first or else end up standing in the wind and frigid rain.
At about nine o’clock, everything came to an end.