Pagodas offer a final resting place as well as an opportunity to commune with the departed
At the Khanh Van Nam Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City's District 11, a middle-aged woman sits on the floor in a room whose walls are lined with bricked shelves stocked with more than a thousand jasper-colored jars.
A woman worships her dead relatives on a death anniversary at Khanh Van Nam Pagoda in District 11
Beside the woman, whose eyes are set on one of the jars as she mumbles something no one can hear, stands a table arranged with two candles, burning incense, flower and fruit.
Opposite the room's gate-shaped door, decorated with Chinese characters, stands a red wooden altar on which are placed three tablets with the names of the deceased, fruit, tea, joss sticks, and traditional cakes.
The woman is worshipping and talking to her father, whose ashes are kept in the jar. It is his death anniversary.
The room is quiet with her presence.
Six days earlier, the room was full of people who had come to worship and express their gratitude to deceased ancestors during the Vu Lan Festival held on 15th day of the seventh lunar month.
Outside the room, a white-haired man sat on a granite bench that doubles as a cot whenever he wants to take a nap.
Chu Tu (Uncle Four) is the guardian of the ashes room in the pagoda, which was built between 1939 and 1942 by the Cantonese Congregation, and is said to be the only pure Taoist pagoda in Vietnam, a home to more than 2,000 Taoists in the city.
"They come to worship and clean their dead relatives' jars all year around, especially before, during and after Vu Lan Festival, since the room was built in 1977 to keep the ashes of followers, mainly Chinese-Vietnamese, after a cemetery nearby was removed for site clearance purposes," said chu Tu, who didn't want to mention his full name.
According to senior monk Thien An of the Thien Hung Pagoda on Van Kiep Street, also a home to ashes since it opened in the early 20th century, many locals keep the ashes of their dead relatives in pagodas and honor them during the Vu Lan Festival and other anniversaries, for they believe that the souls are still with them and the holy atmosphere in pagodas can help them to repent and gain salvation from their sins.
On death anniversaries and during the Vu Lan Festival, which is also known as the festival of all souls, the souls of the deceased are believed to return their former home and partake of food offerings from their survivors on earth.
"Today, however, these are no longer religious practices or superstitions, just traditions to commemorate the ancestors."
Chu Tu, 67, who has worked in the ashes room since 1990s, said, "I don't believe in wandering souls or that the deceased can be freed of their sins by listening to Buddhist chants, but I think it is good that we have at least a day to honor our beloved who have passed away and recall our memories of them."
The Chinese-Vietnamese man, whose ancestors are from China's Guangdong Province, said some visitors not only clean and wipe the jars of their ancestors, but also help him to clean others, since he himself could not do it all by himself.
"But not everyone does this, we have at least one-fifth of the jars that have been abandoned by their relatives for years," Tu said. He feels that today, people, especially youth, do not respect or show their gratitude to their elders.
Chu Tu always observes and marks the abandoned jars.
"Such jars can be recognized due to the layers of dust though I wipe them often. Without the hands of their relatives, the jars look lonely and dusty."
Like most of the pagodas in the country, in order to have the ashes of the deceased kept in the Khanh Van Nam Pagoda, the relatives have to pay around VND1 million (US$50).
"It is not just the dead, but many of the living who have booked a place in the shelves for themselves as preparation for their after life," said chu Tu.
He said the jars, especially the abandoned ones, will be kept in the pagoda for 20 years. Later, the pagoda will ask the relatives to collect the jars and throw the ashes into rivers or the sea, a ritual called water burial.
However filial piety should not begin after a person dies, but much earlier, said Thien An. He said it should be an aspect of daily life.
"Not only Buddhists or Taoists, but everyone must practice this (filial piety) as the most important virtue, not just during the Vu Lan Festival or on special days, but every day in different aspects, especially when our parents are still with us."