A H'mong ethnic community in central Vietnam is practicing a centuries-old funeral ritual that requires dead bodies to be keep in the family for days before burial, a practice that officials warn can pose serious health risks.
Lau Minh Po, deputy chief of the Muong Lat District’s Party unit in Thanh Hoa Province, said he has for years tried to persuade local H’mong people to give up the tradition, which he described as "terrifying."
Po, a H'mong man, said the ritual is old-fashioned and should be changed.
The H’mong attach much importance to funeral. After a person dies, an family will keep the dead body inside their home around seven days, sometimes longer. The body is tied and put on a bamboo stretcher, and then the stretcher is hung near the ceiling.
Family members will then “feed” the deceased during meals by putting steamed rice and water in his or her mouth because the dead people have to be treated as if they were alive.
Everyday, they carry the stretcher out of the house when the sun rises and put it under the sun before bringing it back into the house. The number of sunbathing days is usually equal to the number of children of the deceased.
During the burial ceremony, the family will slaughter as many cattle as possible to worship their ancestors and then invited other villagers to eat. They believe that if the dead people are “fed” with as much food as possible, they would have a prosper life in the negative world.
The ceremony usually lasts in half a day. The dead body is finally laid in a coffin and buried.
Po, the Party official, said he had spent years reading books about the customs of his people. He tried to persuade village chiefs that some of the funeral rituals come with serious health risks because dead bodies can transmit a number of diseases.
But the village chiefs argued that if a custom was illegal, the H’mong people would have been punished by the government, and if it was spiritually wrong, they would have been punished by ghosts. Until either of those happens, they will continue to practice it.
Kicking the habit
In May last year, Po came to the house of his uncle Lau Chu Do as soon as he was informed of his death.
When he entered the house, the body was already tied and about to be pulled up.
Po persuaded his relatives to lay the body in a coffin, but everybody fought him.
His grandfather called him a “disrespectful” person and said he would be punished by ghosts.
Po told everybody that the body should be at least laid in a coffin before being hung up near the ceiling.
Some people agreed with him. Many got mad and left the house, after putting a curse on him that he would be dead in the next three months.
The uncle’s family did not accept Po’s proposal to hang the coffin in the house for only one day. They kept it for three days.
Po then successfully persuaded his relatives not to kill all buffaloes and cows for the burial ceremony to avoid wasteful spending. They only slaughtered one pig and several chickens.
Po’s father got mad with him after the event. But after several months, he saw that nothing bad happened to the family, so his anger burned out.
Following the uncle’s funeral, Po has successfully persuaded five H’mong families to lay five bodies of the deceased in coffins.
“It is very difficult because a majority are not willing to change their mind,” he said.