A Traditional Hmong Family from Laos
Tou Vang was 76 when he died after a long illness and several hospitalizations. However, in keeping with his wishes and with
the help of his family and hospice, Tou was able to live in his own home until he died, surrounded by many members of his
clan who lived nearby. A member of the Hmong community, Tou and his wife, Soua, immigrated from Laos in the late 1960s.
The Hmong are an ethnic group from the highland regions of Southeast Asia, especially Laos, Cambodia and China. Hundreds of thousands of Hmong immigrated to North America in the late 1960s and 1970s as the political climate of southeast Asia became more volatile. Historically a nomadic people, Hmong are Animists, believing individual spirits inhabit things in the world. There are household spirits, spirits in natural things such as rocks and trees, and ancestral spirits as part of the belief system.
Roxanne, Tou's hospice nurse, saw Tou lying on a grass mat on the living room floor when she arrived at the family home on Wednesday morning, about 20 minutes after his death, a practice she knew to be common among the Hmong in her community. Some of the Hmong families Roxanne had previously helped had been willing to discuss funeral plans in advance, but Tou's family adhered to strict Hmong custom and declined to discuss what would happen when he died.
For all of the first day, Tou's body lay in the house, even though his sons made contact with the funeral director commonly called by other members of their community. Tou's sons and nephews bathed him under the direction of a community leader while many family members and friends wailed loudly in the next room. As soon as a wooden stretcher was constructed, Tou was transferred to it. Within an hour of Mr. Vang's death, two community musicians arrived to play the funeral drum and the qeej, a traditional Hmong reed pipe instrument. While in some communities, gunshots would have been fired to announce the death, in deference to local laws, the playing of this reed pipe and beating of a funeral drum had become the public announcement of death.
Though in Laos, Hmong families would have kept their loved one at home throughout the funeral period, the custom in Tou's community was to keep the deceased at home a day or two and then phone the funeral director to take charge. Early Thursday afternoon, 28 hours after his death, the funeral home became the scene for the family and community members activities related to Tou Vang's funeral as the funeral directors arrived and took Mr. Vang into their care.
Several cars followed in procession as the funeral vehicle left the Vang's home and made its slow journey about three miles to the funeral home. Tou's sons and nephews took him from the hearse and carried him directly into the funeral chapel where his stretcher would rest on the floor. Many Hmong families would decline embalming, but in this Hmong community, embalming was routinely chosen to allow them to most effectively carry out their funeral customs. Over the next several days, people came and went from the funeral home which remained available to the family and community around the clock. Food was cooked under a tent in the parking lot and the qeej and drum played continuously. In urban communities of North America and Europe, Hmong funeral activities typically include a mixture of rituals at the funeral home and in the family home.
With the help of community elders, Monday was selected as the auspicious day for the burial, although traditionally, a Hmong burial might not occur for ten or twelve days after the death. Family members and friends sat up with Tou's body all night on Sunday while an elder sang sacred texts to both Tou and his family. With the help of the funeral director, Tou's sons transferred his body to the casket they had selected, made simply of wood with no screws or other metal hardware. In keeping with traditional Hmong customs, Tou's burial was held in the afternoon since common belief is that the first of two major spirits leaves the body at sunset.
More than 35 volunteer helpers were involved in the funeral for Tou Vang, performing a multitude of vital tasks. Different chefs prepared vegetables, rice and different kinds of meat. A light supplier assured adequate candles were available and that they continued burning. With city utilities available for cooking and washing, the traditional roles of water carriers and firewood gatherers were symbolic. And even though when Mr. Vang's own father died in Laos, an ox was butchered the morning of the burial, for Tou Vang's funeral, meat was obtained from a local Hmong market. This meat was used for the feast to be shared by family and friends when they returned to the family home from the cemetery.
The Vang's clothing store remained closed during the funeral period, not opening again until Wednesday following Tou's burial. But Tou's burial by no means ended his community's funeral rites, because like many Hmong, Tou's belief was that the second major soul does not leave the body until at least 13 days after the burial. In keeping with this family belief, a second ceremony was held two weeks after Tou's burial in which the qeej player and drummer, along with many other community members, reassembled to help Tou's second major soul return to the world of ancestors. This soul releasing ceremony is necessary in common Hmong belief so that the deceased can be reassigned to earth.
While the Vang family represents one way Hmong families and communities acknowledge death and pay tribute to the life of their loved ones, it is by no means the only way. The following resources will be helpful to you as you continue to learn about these customs.
- Bliatout, B. T. (1993). Hmong death customs: Traditional and acculturated. In D.P. Irish, K. F. Lundquist, & V. J. Nelsen (Eds.), Ethnic Variations in Dying, Death, and Grief: Diversity in Universality (pp79-100). Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.
- Fadiman, A. (1997). The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- Falk, C. (2004). Hmong Instructions to the Dead. Asian Folklore Studies, 63, 1-29.
- Thao, Y.J. (2006). Culture and Knowledge of the Sacred Instrument Qeej in the Mong-American Community. Asian Folklore Studies, 65, 249-267.
- Yang, K. K. (2008). The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press.