Burying on land those who went missing at sea

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A family on Ly Son Island has, for over 150 years, making dummies to represent people whose bodies were never found at sea or given a proper burial

Vo Van Nhanh, 44, continues the tradition of making dummies to bury in place of humans who go missing at sea on Ly Son Island in the central province of Quang Ngai

Vietnam has tens of thousands of fishing villages, but only Ly Son Island, 24 kilometers off the coast of the central province of Quang Ngai, has graves where clay dummies are buried as substitutes for fishermen who go missing at sea.

The practice began in the 19th century, and there was a time when several locals were dummy makers.

However, there is only one man doing it now: 44-year-old Vo Van Nhanh, the sixth generation in his family that has continued the family vocation.

Nhanh said when his 80-year-old father, Vo Van Toai, was active, there were a few other makers, but they have all retired without having anyone succeed them, because "not everyone can do it."

To do this job, one must have one of three factors facial features, manners or physical structure that is accordance with the "science" of human face and body reading, he said. Typically, from each generation in his family, only one was chosen to succeed their ancestors.

"For me, I have the figure," said Nhanh, smiling. He looks like most local fisherman: short, heavy and tanned.

Nhanh started working as an assistant to his father when he was 15, which was what his father did as well.

"I don't remember how many dummies I have made since then. Perhaps hundreds," he said.

Every year Nhanh makes three to seven dummies, but in 2011, he made six on just one occasion for the crew of a fishing boat that capsized at sea. Earlier, in 1992, he once helped his father make nine dummies for a family in An Vinh Commune.

"It was heartbreaking. Eleven people were onboard including a father, sons, and sons-in-laws, but only two survived after being rescued by another boat," he said.

Even though it is a family vocation, Nhanh does not earn his living from making dummies. For that he does traditional jobs on the island like selling fish and growing garlic.

"Ly Son people are poor, so how can I charge them? How much they pay me to show their gratitude depends on them."

Moreover, Nhanh said, the job is something very sacred that he is fated to do.  It helps lessen the pain of families whose loved ones are taken by the sea.

It is "very painful" for people that their loved ones have no place to rest in peace after death, he said. Therefore, despite poverty, they try to get enough money to hold a proper burial ceremony for missing family members who are represented by the dummies Nhanh makes.

As fishing is a traditional job that is handed down through generations at local families, people believe that it is a "bad omen" if a son succeeds his father in becoming a fisherman while the latter's spirit is still wandering at sea, according to Nhanh.

Asked if he could show how he makes dummies to reporters or tourists, Nhanh refused, saying that it is "prohibited."

There are many taboos involved, he said. For instance, the deceased's wife and children are not allowed to be present when the dummy's lower abdomen is made so that the soul of the departed person does not feel embarrassed.

Nhanh said that when he made dummies for six victims on the capsized boat in 2011, a man insisted on setting up a camera next to him, only to find all the recorded film was damaged.

However, he was willing to describe how he makes one. He said a dummy is about a foot long with all human body parts. The heart is made of clay mixed with egg yolk, while a mixture of clay and cotton makes up the flesh and skin. The skeleton is made from white mulberry wood, and internal organs are coal from burned Neem trees.

After it is made, the dummy is dressed with normal clothes and the traditional attires used for those who have passed away.

Then it is taken to the shore together with offerings and placed in the direction in which the deceased's boat had left earlier, he said, adding that the ceremony aims to direct the lost soul to the dummy and stay there. After that the dummy will be placed in a coffin and buried as usual.

Since no one knows when the person actually died, the day of the ceremony is chosen as the death anniversary day.

The island's oldest dummy graves are believed to be that of Pham Quang Anh and Pham Huu Nhat two military officers under the Nguyen Dynasty (1804-1839).

Nhanh said the dummies of Anh and Nhat were made by his fourth great grandfather under the order of King Gia Long, the founder of the dynasty, after they both went missing at sea.

That was when the practice began in Ly Son, he said.

Since then how many dummy graves have been built on the island, no one knows.

It cannot be a small number, given that almost half of the clay mine on Gieng Tien Mountain, the only source of raw material for the job, has been used up. (Original story from The Thao & Van Hoa)

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