In the past, one should take off her/his hat when seeing a funeral car passes by. It isn’t the norm anymore: the funeral car is now just a part of ongoing traffic, struggling through it like everyone else for the lack of common courtesy to give the de facto right-of-way.
Some time ago when I still looked at funeral cars with a more objective eye, I had a moderate interest in the juxtaposition of those elaborately ornamented vehicles against the backdrop of a city that is structurally trying very hard to be recognized as modern. Due to the agglomeration of developments first in District 1 and then along the Saigon River, the process of modernization and the state of modernity are persistently inconsistent. Is then the sight of the funeral car itself a signal of the uneven development? Will the more modern version – a SUV decorated lightly with a bouquet of violet orchids – eventually take its place, then continue to evolve into something else? How does the funeral car function as an urban cultural entity?
Just last month, my grandaunt passed away. Her funeral was the first time I consciously participated in the chores and the rites of sending a loved one away to a different world. Because of this, I’ve gained new personal insights and sympathy toward the sight of the funeral car as well as the whole funeral business. The emotional and physical experiences that Grandaunt’s funeral brought about induce new curiosity on the relations between the rituals of funerals and the urban space that they take place in. In a way, this mini essay continues on the exploration of urban death-scapes.
As much as a formal gathering a funeral is to honor the departed, it is essentially very personal to the individual participant as it is private to the group. In the context of Vietnamese culture, it also usually involves the temporary privatization of a public area. For examples, tents setting up in order to shelter guests or funeral flags hanging as public announcements at one or multiple street corners where the funeral is taking place.
In Grandaunt’s case, flags were hanged at the alleyway-ends.
Immediately after Grandaunt passed away, her caretaker and niece helped clean her then clothed her with a personal attire that’s more formal and, in my personal Vietnamese expression, đẹp hơn – “prettier”. The attire reminded me of her when she was still a healthy and independent woman – before she became unable to speak or walk by herself after an accident more than a decade ago. Lying on her mat bed, Grandaunt had her face covered by a handkerchief, and her stomach placed a hand of bananas. Some guests intermittently came to see her for the last time and bid farewells.
A couple of hours later, a group of men from the funeral service that my grandmother requested came to put on Grandaunt some pieces of funeral cloths. In bright red and yellow, the piece on her face came with the decoration of a feng shui mirror, while the one on her entire body a sutra in sankrit (as opposed to Vietnamese). Her feet were kept warm in a new pair of thin socks.
Grandaunt’s body was kept in that state with our family for a night. We kept the house door open all night, and so a couple of relatives took turns to guard both the coffin and the house. During the first night, as Grandaunt’s body decayed, the bananas on her stomach fell. Grandaunt’s caretaker told us later that she and one uncle of mine came together to check if Grandaunt was still alive. They were so tired that they even saw Grandaunt’s stomach moving as if she was breathing.
Later when the caretaker took a two-hour nap, she saw Grandaunt talked to her and told her to wake up. In Vietnamese culture, we believe our loved ones would come back to see us one last time before leaving for another world. In a way, that was the first time the caretaker heard Grandaunt speaking, since she came to Grandaunt’s life after Grandaunt was already half-paralyzed.
The next morning was lễ nhập quan – a rite to put the body into the coffin. Two Buddhist monks, whom we had formally invited, came to chant and guide us to follow the correct procedures along the chants. Being a Buddhist, I felt the chanting, while having their usual soothing effects, was an estranging act of recognizing death and hence worldly separation. I knelt down in front of the coffin, accepting that my Grandaunt indeed already passed away. The person I loved dearly before now became an object of worshiping. Some people even instructed their kids to pray that Grandaunt would look over their study.
Because Grandaunt was not married and hence childless, her funeral was advised to be brief so that she wouldn’t “owe” any love from the living anymore, so that she could reach nirvana sooner. Being Buddhists, we also talked among ourselves that although it is sad that we lost Grandaunt, we should understand that Grandaunt’s death is her own liberation from the paralyzed state and from the life of sufferings.
Joining another uncle, I guarded Grandaunt during her last night with us. We sat in front of her house and her coffin, chatting. The alley width was about five meters, and we occupied almost half of it with tables and chairs. Sometimes it was just us and a deadly black mouse in the whole alley. Sometimes some people passed by. I observed that they usually walked a little faster when they passed by us. A few of them secretly took a look into the house. Sometimes we also quickly exchanged eye contacts. There was neither condolence nor complaint.
Around 3:30 am, the coffee lady at one end of the alleyway arrived at her coffee shop. We usually bought coffee from her but only until recently that I realized she doesn’t live in this alleyway. I also didn’t expect people to start their days that early in the morning. Her coffee shop, a couple of broken-rice stalls; then people getting home and others going to work. The rhythm of the alley life was going on as if Grandaunt’s funeral was merely a part of it.
I went to sleep at six something and woke up later in the morning. After that, there was another round of praying and worshiping. We continued to occupy the alleyway with the public’s silent approval of space use and admittedly, a bit of noise.
A funeral band came at 2 pm. Only three songs were played; one of which was Grandaunt’s wish to be played at her funeral – “Chị tôi” by songwriter Trần Tiến. The song is about an older sister who never got married because she needed to take care of her parents and younger siblings. Grandaunt’s younger sister – my grandmother – promised her that she would hire a band to play that song for her. It was actually the only song my grandmother requested. But perhaps the band didn’t know the story of the two old sisters, they tried to fill the air with the other two songs typical of funerals, one about the impermanence of life and the others a mother’s love for her children.
It started raining heavily when the band started to play. It was quite a messy situation because the rites were performed outdoor. In addition, people of ongoing traffic passed by and cut through the funeral in the process. They hurriedly bowed to either the coffin or us as to apologize. We also casually bowed and apologized for taking up their traffic space. Yet there was no clear distinction between public and private spaces.
Fortunately, it stopped raining by the time we had to send Grandaunt to cremation. Personally, I think Grandaunt’s coffin was carried out in style. The sight of her coffin decorated with a bouquet of tuberose was somehow poignantly romantic and aesthetically pleasing. Our group followed the lead of her coffin, mourning yet still trying to organize ourselves. Some of the neighbors joined us, while some stood in front of their own houses to pay respect and bid farewell. After fifteen meters or so away from Grandaunt’s house, the coffin was stopped to make a gesture of bowing at my great-grandparent’s house, which was where Grandaunt had lived before she’s able to buy her own house in the same alleyway. Then at the end of the alleyway, the coffin was stopped again to make the same gesture to a small temple across the street, then again to the alleyway after turning around, bidding farewell to all relatives, all neighbors, all memories.
That marked the end of Grandaunt’s 82 years of life in that alleyway.
The music stopped. Her coffin was put on a special car decorated with dragons and other motifs. In addition to two Buddhist monks, only the caretaker and those whom my Grandaunt helped raised and, hence, were ranked as her children – my two uncles and my mom – were asked to ride on that car. The rest of us went on to a big contracted bus to follow. The bus wasn’t full, but there were various conversations and emotions going on as we tried to move through the afternoon traffic while keeping up with the funeral car and the other car with a Buddha statue that led the whole group.
We went almost across the city to arrive at the cremation place, which is surrounded by a cemetery that is in the process to become a shopping mall. My grandma, other grandaunts, and uncles discussed about having to collect the remains of other family members as we passed through the cemetery. It was a headache to get the compensation fee from the government so she gave that fee up halfway, my grandma said. On my part, I just did not and do not understand why we need another department store or shopping mall in the city.
As soon as we arrived at the cremation place, a final rite of farewell began. Then Grandaunt’s coffin was taken away shortly, waiting to be cremated. We had to leave her there.
After sitting through traffic again, we return to the house, now empty of both the sudden ceremony and its owner.
The caretaker went to pick up Grandaunt’s ashes in the next morning. After that, we held a small ceremony at a small temple where the urn will be housed for the next 49 days, which is a period of transition before the next reincarnation. At Grandaunt’s house, a new altar took over the place she usually sat. Every seven days there would be a 20-minute ceremony, which falls on Fridays and which is both a filial duty and a reminder of Grandaunt’s death.
Sometimes some hawkers ask about grandaunt as they pass by. Sometimes we buy their stuff to put them on the altar just because Grandaunt used to like them.
As we’re adjusting to the new normal, life goes on.