Vietnamese Funerals and Feasting
The following is an excerpt of Ann's contribution to a new encyclopedia on multicultural entertaining, due out in 2009.
In the Vietnamese Buddhist culture, when a loved one is lost, the
families (generally it is the children of the loved one that takes the
helm) will gather and make important decisions on the funeral
arrangements. However, what separates these arrangements from other
cultures is that the burial day and time is determined by the lunar
calendar. Some days are considered more “lucky” or holy than others.
Families must also coordinate with the local Buddhist temple in
arriving at a sacred date and time. Generally, there are many temples
to choose from and usually it is the temple where the deceased has been
involved with and worshiped at. The choice of temple is important
because when families have lost a loved one, they will give a picture
of the deceased to that temple where it is then displayed on a wall
with hundreds of other photographs. The monks, in their gold or
saffron colored robes, will sit along with other temple members, to
pray for these souls so that they may reach Nirvana.
Important meditation and prayer processions are also involved in the
funeral. During the wake period and body viewing, monks and nuns from
the chosen temple come each day to do a one hour meditation. A larger
invocation takes place on the burial day. These meditations require the
attendance of all family members. Family members must wear a white
cotton band around their heads during the burial day. Ceremonially, the
family is united again at the temple for more meditation and prayer 45
days after where the white band can then symbolically be removed. 100
days after the burial, the family gathers together one last time to
close the burial rites. Thereafter, family and friends will unite on
the death anniversary (dam vo) of their loved ones, to pray and give
food offerings for those who have passed on.
Vegetarianism is extremely important for Vietnamese Buddhists and many
will abstain from meat or fast on certain days of the month depending
on the moon. Vegetarianism is thus, an important ritual for the
funeral and the death anniversary. From the moment a loved one has
passed, close family members are expected to go on a strict vegan diet.
Buddhism is about being balanced, having a respect for karma, and
understanding that everything you do, will affect another. By
observing this karmic diet, one is paying respect to their loved ones.
Because the temples, monks and nuns are supported by a core group of
volunteers, mostly older women, the temple is the best place to find an
exquisite, Vegetarian, home-cooked meal. These meals are served as
part of any of the earlier mentioned funeral prayers and meditations.
The vegetarian Vietnamese meal is one of the oldest food traditions in
the culture, and thus, for the carnivorous, the vegetarian meal is not
too difficult to get through! Close family members are expected to stay
on their vegan diet for the 45 days, and children of lost parents will
refrain from eating meat for the full 100 days.
Large vegetarian meals take place on the important funeral days: the
day of the burial, 45 days after the death and the 100 day anniversary.
On the day of the burial, a large, vegetarian meal is hosted by the
family. The meal must be large enough in order to invite and thank all
the families and close friends that have come from far away, as well
upping the ante on the food to play homage to the deceased. The meal
can take place at the family home or one can invite the group out to a
restaurant. As long as the meal is treated like a special event, no
matter the economic background. The typical vegetarian meal will be
shared family-style and would include Vietnamese staples like rice, and
savory dishes made from bean curd, tofu and seitan. Generally these are
used as meat substitutes replicating favorite meat dishes like braised
pork or fish and other stir-fries.
Funeral rites continue even after a loved one is buried in the death
anniversary. As the loved one is remembered on the death anniversary,
the family will also prepare a special vegetarian meal, to serve as a
gathering of family members to commemorate and think about the life of
the deceased. Family members generally keep a Buddhist alter in the
home and displayed on the alter are pictures of family members that
have passed on. Part of the death anniversary ritual is to say prayers,
light incense but mainly to gather the family for the communal,
For the Vietnamese Buddhist, the long procession and attention to
detail with diet and the funeral procession may seem much, but the
Vietnamese culture, rich in familial ties, finds the discipline an
essential part of the mourning period. For those who have lost a dear
one, often the rigidity and the careful attention allows them to grieve
and feel that they have done what they can to send them off to the