On Friday, February 14, 2003, my class went to a Hmong funeral. It was my first funeral, same with some other classmates. Dhia Thao was 88 when she died. She died of health problems. She came to America in 1976, and then worked in a pickle factory with her son. Dhia Thao had seven children, 5 boys and 2 girls.
When I first walked in it was exciting, being at a Hmong funeral. It wasn’t at all what culture I knew. It was astonishing to me. I had expected people crying – black – a coffin. Well, that’s not what I found. When I entered the space, where the body was held, I got nervous. A lot of people were staring – looking – glancing, but then I noticed they were all saying welcome.
When we got off the bus, I was all happy. We entered the building. I experienced a little bit of culture shock.
“Our culture is strange to others,” said Fue Chou Thao, a Hmong man at the funeral. The Hmong have very different funerals from you and me. Their funerals are for four days starting at 8 on Friday and going till noon on Monday. How long the different ceremonies are depend on how old the person is when they die. There have been certain changes since the Hmong have moved from Laos to America.
The 3 1/2 days of rituals aren’t all funeral. They are also the graveside ceremonies and the wake all put into one. It’s hard to say how long each part of it is because they are all blended together.
How the Room Looked
When we got there, Fue Chou Thao greeted us and gave us seats where the ceremonies would be done.
I knew this would turn out to be greatly amazing and it was. Chairs for the audience, a carpeted floor, couches, the spiritual guide, the dead body, the qeej player, the drum, the gifts, the spirit money and the coffin. Amazing.
The woman who had died was lying near the front of the room. She wasn’t in a coffin. She was just on the floor.
–Dylan and Erika
Sitting next to her was a Hmong man. …The man was a (spiritual) guide. …At the table that the man was sitting at were some small pieces of paper with bars of silver on them. They were supposed to work as money in Dhia’s new life. There was also a box next to the table. It had an umbrella and some food and drink that she would need in her next life.
A big drum is hung from a pyramid made from wood. They beat the drum and then hang it.
There are many pictures of Dhia on the walls of the funeral home.
Then Abigail came running up to me saying how Dhia died and all that kind of stuff. So I said “How do you know all that stuff?” She said “Her life is on that paper over there. I went and read it.” So I went and I found out she was a strong women that had seven children and two heart attacks.
In another room there were flowers and wreaths that I am guessing were for the family, to show respect.
As we walked in the door, we were welcomed by people who were sitting, chatting, enjoying themselves. It didn’t really seem like a funeral at all except for the body of 88-yr old Dhia Thao, dressed in colorful clothes and her family and in-laws at her side.
Most were totally open to having a dead person in the room.
Most of the people around us were men. They were talking and laughing happily with each other. The women were in two different places. They were in the far side of the room hanging up paper string and folded paper that looked like boats. There were thousands of these hanging up in an X-shape across the ceiling. The center point of the X was directly above the body of the deceased, Dhia Tao. We later found that the paper objects were a form on money. … (the other place were the women were) was a room very similar to the one where the funeral was being held that was reserved for women to go and talk to each other.
I saw no one crying but I bet as the days go on there will be more emotional behavior because it getting to the point where they have to say goodbye.
The Ceremonies and Traditions: The Spirit’s Journey
The Hmong believe in spirits and reincarnation. I don’t really understand what a spirit is, but the whole funeral is basically about helping the spirit get back to its ancestors so it can live again.
The Hmong have a belief that in order to get into the spirit world, the spirit has to go through all of the places it lived in, and finally get to the place of birth to get the placenta so it can show the placenta to his/her ancestors and pass into the spirit world. The spiritual guide tells her/him where to go and what to do.
…A man plays the qeej. They are instructed by the qeej music to go find their placenta. At birth a girl’s placenta is put under the bed and a boy’s is put near the center pole. So there is a rooster present and a man talks to the person and guides them to all the places they have lived and then when they finally get to the place they were born and get their placenta they can go to their ancestors and the rooster guides them to their ancestors. Depending how old the person is it takes longer because they have been to more places than someone that died younger.
After the spiritual guide has gotten her/him to the placenta, a rooster is brought in to the body’s presence. When it crows, that tells the spirit “I have found your true ancestor,” and it tells the way. After it crows, it is sacrificed, to be like the pet of the spirit.
When we were there, the rooster was killed outside. From then on the rooster will serve as her guide. When Dhia Thao comes across a spirit she will not know if he/she is here ancestor or not. So, the rooster gives his Cock-a-Doodle-Doo call, and if the spirit’s rooster answers, that means Yes, the spirit is a true ancestor.
The liver and other parts are given to the spirit as food, buried beside the coffin.
From the moment a Hmong person is born, there is a house spirit that lives in the house and protects her. When the Hmong person dies, she will have to leave the house and make her journey. The Txiv Taw Kev guides her through this part. (The twix taw kev is the spiritual guide.) The spirit will try to keep her in the house.
If the spirit in the house says that you can’t go, then you’ll have to pay and say that I am dead now and I have to leave this house. I don’t belong here any more, I belong in the spirit world with my ancestors. If you don’t let me go, I’ll pay you.
Music, Ceremonies and Rituals
When the spiritual guide does his ceremony 80-90% of it is specially designed for her (the deceased). The other 10%-20% that’s left is used in every Hmong funeral.
“There is a spirit man who talks to the dead person on the first day of the funeral. He tells the spirit to go to the other world.”
The (spiritual) guide started singing and throwing a bamboo stick split in half to make two. While he was singing he was asking her questions or something and if he threw them and …
…If both are face down, it means no and the spirits are happy. If two of them are face up, it means the humans are happy and no. But if one is face down and one is face up, it means the both spirits and humans are happy and it means yes.
Whenever one was up and one down the family members kneeling by the coffin holding incense would bow twice in a sign of thanks.
Cows and pigs were also sacrificed to act as food and something to carry things on. The sacrificed rooster’s liver is fed to the Spirit. While the larger animals are being sacrificed, there is a rope or string connecting the body to the animal. Many people will often hold the rope or string. My class did not see any of the sacrifices happening. The rooster was killed outside and the cows at a farm.
In Hmong funerals, you have to have four qeej players along with some drum players. The job for the qeej players and the drum player are to send the dead person to the other world. The qeej is saying “go to the other world, we don’t want you to stay so you don’t scare us, go to your ancestors.
The qeej playing is a very important part of the funeral. There are many many different songs played. The songs can last an hour or two hours, and that might seem very long, but it really isn’t because the funeral ceremonies last for 3+ days!!! Many of the songs the qeej plays are to thank mother earth, the relative and friends of the deceased and all the spirits that have helped her in her life.
When the qeej players play, they play stories. Some about the sun and moon, others about mother earth and the sky.
The twix taw kev will sing for a very long time in the funerals, with the sons and daughters of the deceased mourning and bowing to the corpse of their old, wise mother.
Right next to Dhia Thao her family was blowing with incense because they were wishing themselves good blessings.
Her family members would be around her protecting her.
When people brought a gift, the family would come and bow and say thanks and the people who gave the gift would repeat.
The Body and Clothes
Dhia was dressed in special “funeral clothes” that had been prepared for her years earlier.
Dhia is dressed for all seasons with show shoes, a traditional Hmong coat, an umbrella and a crossbow. The coat and snow shoes are for winter, the umbrella if for rainy times and the crossbow for hunting and killing animals to eat.
…the body (was) covered with the beautiful clothes of the traditional clothing of the Hmong. She had a black and white polka-dotted “turban” around her head. The upper part of the body had mostly blues and a little bit of white and black in some places near the arms. The lower par of the body in my perspective was a lot prettier than the upper part. It had pink, orange, blue and a lot of other colors. The feet had grass woven soles and supports.
The outfit she wears has never been worn before. Also the shoes are made especially for snow because it is cold in China where she will end up.
(The shoes were) purple with the toes curled up. There were pieces of rope on the bottom, to make the shoes serve as show shoes in case of bad weather on her journey through the spiritual world back to her birthplace.
What was neat was that people would come up and fix something. It the shoe was coming off, they’d slip it on. If a button was undone, they’d come and button it.
Her coffin was made out of a tree found in Laos that is like a pine tree. The coffin was made in Laos, her homeland.
The wood came all the way from a cedar tree in Laos and smelled really good and fresh.
The coffin … was put together with wood nails. This is a tradition. No metal things can be put in the coffin because it brings bad luck to the person in their next life or the relatives that are still alive. So, on Saturday all of the family members guard the coffin to make sure no one puts any metal in.
Fue Chou explained to us that there are many different kinds of coffins. Some are very fancy, with lots of swirls and such carved in. The one there was standard, not too fancy and not too plain.
Hanging from the ceiling were paper boats with gold and silver foil on them. These represent gold and silver bars for wealth in the other world. The paper boats are made by the family of the one who has died. They can begin making the boats as soon as the person has died.
Spirit money is money that is burned after the dead person’s spirit has finished its journey. Some money is taken by the spirit to pay as it passes through the gate. The money in Laos was actually gold and silver bars. Here, because we don’t use that, they use pieces of paper that are folded into the shape of a boat they have painted gold for gold bars and silver for silver bars.
Even the spirits need money.
When we got on the bus, I felt proud I decided to come to the funeral, but half of me said to stay, so I got kind of scared I made the wrong decision. When my class and I got there, I felt very scared because of the dead body. I want to explore a new culture because of the exciting activities, food, etc. But in the other way, I wanted to stay at school. … Then we went in where the dead body was and sat in that room. I kept on telling Melissa “I’m scared, are you scared …” … So I just opened my Hmong Culture notebook and wrote what people were doing. We went in to the room where the dead body was. Then everyone looked at us and got us and said “Here are some chairs you can sit on. … They were very nice. I felt right at home with different styles and the dead body.
I am glad I went to the funeral. It was a powerful experience for me. I appreciate them letting us come and see their culture.
There was a spiritual guide at the funeral. He sang the whole time! His voice must have been tired at the end.
I’ll never forget this funeral. It was really a good experience. I can’t wait to go to another.