Hmong Americans: Dying and Death Ritual

By: Yeng Yang

This paper examines Hmong funeral beliefs and rituals as it is expressed in Laos, and as it is performed within the Hmong American communities in the United States. How has it changed from its traditional form? What particular beliefs and rituals changed? How has it remained the same? In what way is the changes and adaptations an expression of a ―Hmong American ways‖ of doing funeral and caring for the dead? Most importantly, the underlying theme of this paper discusses and analyzes the symbolic meaning of the many rituals performed during the funeral process. As a 1.5 generation (i.e. born in a Thailand refugee camp, and raised in the United States), my understanding of the core concept of Hmong tradition has its limitations. For that reason, I have gathered several articles, books, and conducted 2 extensive interviews to facilitate my analysis about Hmong/Hmong American funeral rituals. Before analyzing the funeral process in length, I will, albeit briefly, discuss several significant conceptions of the Hmong beliefs of life and the afterlife to foreground the examination of changing of the Hmong funeral rituals.
Dimensions and Foundations of Hmong Death Rituals and Beliefs

Death for the Hmong and Hmong Americans is one of the most essential aspects of their culture. To have a proper burial and ceremony is of great importance as this would guide the soul to the afterworld. Vincent K. Her (2005) asserts that it is important because it is part of the cycle of human soul: Sau Ntuj-Upper Realm, Nplaj teb-Earth, and Dlaab Teb-Spirit World [see picture 1]. Literally, it represents birth, death, and renewal. These are the different realms that a Hmong individual passes through during his or her life course.

The Hmong believe in spirits and souls. They believe that the soul can exist inside or outside of the physical body. When an individual becomes sick, that individual has lost or dropped his or her soul. In order to heal, a “soul calling” ceremony is to be performed to recall the soul back to the individual (Thao, 2006). Usually a chicken is sacrificed during this ritual. However, if the individual has a severe illness (e.g. cancer) a larger animal (e.g. cow) would be sacrificed (B. Yang, personal communication, October 17, 2009)2. The soul of the sacrifice animal is used to substitute for the missing soul of the ill person.

Traditionally, Hmong accept the concept that an individual receives a letter of provision—akin to the Western idea of Book of Life and Death— from Sau Ntuj or “the above realm”. Her (2005) stated, “Like sentences on a page, it [letter of provision] unfolds line by line from top to bottom. Death comes when the last word on the page has been read (p. 7).” In that sense when an individual dies, it is because that individual‘s letter of provision has come to an end. Meanwhile, the individual may renegotiate and extend his or her letter of provision. For this to occur, a shaman is required to perform a special ceremony as he is able to act as a apsychopomp; who is able to move in-between this world and the spirit world.

Immediately after an individual dies, a small towel is used to wipe, in an up and down motion, the individual‘s face, 3 times. On the thirteenth-day following the individual‘s death, a prolonged ritual called xi is performed. Lee (2009) affirms, “This is where the family invites the spirit to visit the home in preparation for the release of the soul ritual or tso plig” (p. 27-28). After this ritual is completed, the same exact towel, which was used to wipe the deceased, is set on fire. Usually someone would hold the towel at chest height and then set the towel on fire. When the towel burns and turns into ashes, this represents that the deceased has reached the end of his or her letter of provision, regardless of how young or old that person may be. On the other hand, if the towel does not turn into ashes, but maintains some resemblances of its towel-state, that is, as burned strips of a long cloth, this represents that the person died accidentally, and has not reached the end of his or her letter of provision.

To Show the Way Ritual (Qhuab Ke)

During the funeral, a ritual called, Qhuab ke is followed. Qhuab ke literally means ‘to teach the way,’ in the sense of the way to the ancestors, the way of tradition, beliefs and practices, and the way of the Hmong life and history. Her (2005) declares that the qhuab ke ritual is a “multi-stanza song or poetry which guides the deceased on a journey from the place of death to reincarnation” (p. 9). In order to recite the qhuab ke, the individual would have to be well trained. During the funeral ritual, the official label for him would be the taw kev, which literally means “the one who shows the way.”

In addition to all the stanzas that are being chanted and recited by the taw kev, he also holds a pair of divining sticks called txheej ntawg. These divining sticks are about 2-3 inches long that have been split horizontally into equal halves (Her, 2005). The role of the divine sticks is to let the taw kev communicate to the deceased. After each stanza is recited, the taw kev would release the sticks onto the ground with a quick jolt and interpret the outcome. Because there are two pieces of the txheej ntawg, it has three possible outcomes; either both faced up, down, or opposite. The latter outcome is the only acceptable preference as this outcome indicates that the deceased has acknowledged the stanza and has agreed to move into the next stage. A stanza, read by the taw kev during the quab ke could be construed in the following passage:

You are a person who belongs to this household.
Every day you walk about, flexing your body, moving about.
Today, why are you lavishly dressed, lying across the middle of the floor?
In the old days, you moved about, shifting your poise, full of energy.
How is it that you are so richly adorned, sleeping on the ground, occupying the length of the floor?
Why do you not stay and prepare the harvest for the arrival of brothers and cousins?
Or raise animals, expecting visits of other relatives?
You are a person of this household.
Why are you brilliantly dressed and taking leave, for what purpose?
The deceased answers:
I am a member of this household, a person of this family.
But Ntxij Nyoog is unkind; he has unleashed the fruit of death onto the earth, scattering it on the far side of the mountain.
Unaware of it, I have picked it up to eat.
Sickness has swept over me, engulfing the essence of my liver;
Chill spread slowly invading the vessels of my heart.3

Appreciating the qhuab ke Ritual

Because the Hmong are heterogeneous, a Yang clan may have a slight different version of the qhuab ke ritual than a Xiong or Vang clan. Despite the many versions, the core objectives are similar in all of them. For example, the core objectives are to illustrate the “(1) creation and origin of life and death, (2) returning journey to the ancestors, [and how to find his or her placenta], and (3) regeneration of the soul‖ (Her, 2005). As the qhuab ke ritual progresses through the different stages, it can take anywhere from an hour to several hours.

Because the qhuab ke is a well structured ritual, there are many underlying symbolic meanings to it. First, the ritual has a strict sequence order to follow. This allows knowledge of the culture to pass from one generation to the next. Although Hmong do not have an official written language to keep track of records, the qhuab ke ritual remains one of the most important rituals for the reason that it functions as a mapping system, perpetuating past memories for those who are alive. Second, the ritual traces back all the major places the deceased has lived, preserving the recollection of that individual. Hence, this signifies that the past is being acknowledged as much as the present. In addition, because the ritual speaks about life, death, and everything in between, it is an occasion for the Hmong to appreciate and embrace their values and beliefs. Her (2005) asserted explicitly:

The efficacy of zaaj qhuab ke lies in its ability to evoke memories invested in myth, stories, space, places (dwellings) and landscapes, geography and terrains of live experiences. Guided by this song [chant], each person, upon death, would embark on the lingering journey across the 3 domains… first making his or her way out of the family home (p. 10-11)

Qeej Tu Siav Ritual

After the qhuab ke ritual, a well trained expert in qeej (i.e. a pipe instrument made of bamboo) would play the Qeej Tu Siav ritual, literally translates into “The Song of Expiring Life.” At this stage, the qeej player would execute the song according to the death of the deceased. For example, if the individual was poisoned, hung him or herself, or died in a car accident, the qeej player would be executing the song accordingly (B. Yang, personal communication, October 17, 2009). Within these qeej songs lie powerful symbolic meanings that only the qeej player and few others are able to comprehend, given their experiences. An example of a verse for a deceased who had poisoned himself or herself could be translated into the following passage:

You are born into this world
Have decided to overdose your self
Going back to your ancestor
They will not accept you…4

Hmong Death Ceremony in Laos

In Laos, the Hmong have no funeral homes. When an individual dies, the corpse is kept inside the home for as long as the funeral proceeds. The funeral varies from three– 12 days, depending upon how significant that individual is. If a small child passes away, the ceremony may be held for three days only as there may only be minimal animal sacrifices and few rituals to be performed. On the other hand, if a highly respected member dies, the funeral may be held for an extended time period as there are going to be many more animal sacrifices, and more complex procedures to follow. Occasionally, a funeral may be withheld and extended because family members from other villages need more time to arrive to the site of the funeral (K. Yang, personal communication, October 24, 2009)5.

Traditionally, when an individual dies in the village, someone would utilize gunshots to inform others that an individual has passed away. Preparing new clothes and bathing (i.e. washing the deceased with a cloth as described earlier] is mandatory as this is the very first process in preparation for the funeral ceremony. The deceased would then be put in front of the spiritual pillar where all the rituals would be performed. Although the deceased is no longer alive, special meals are still being prepared three times throughout the day. For this ritual, like all other rituals, a knowledgeable person is required (K. Yang, personal communication, October 24, 2009).

Tradition in Transition: Hmong Death Rituals in America

In a general sense, Hmong American funeral has several significant changes compared to the traditional funerals, because of the easy access to water, rice, and other material products. One significant change is that the funerals are no longer practiced within the decease‘s home; rather, it is now takes place in a funeral home. This is a significant change because traditionally, it is preferred to have the deceased inside the home as the guardians and spirits are present for protection. Traditionally the qhuab ke ritual begins at the home and then moves onto the next stages. Nowadays, it begins at the funeral home and then onto the deceased home, which in a sense is rather an awkward process from the taw kev’s perspective. Another significant is the modification and substitution of the sacrificed animals. Because there are no oxen in the United States, cows and buffalos are the alternatives. At the present, it is still a common practice for Hmong Americans to kill a cow as votive offerings to a deceased, especially when it is a father or mother (Thao, 2009). Another significant change is that the sacrificed animal has to be transported to the funeral home, thus, only the head of the animal and other significant parts could only be used during the sacrifice ritual instead of the whole sacrificial animal.

To the outside community, animal sacrifice may appear primitive and brutal. However, to those who grow-up in this cultural setting, animal sacrifice is a part of life, a way for them to express their spiritual beliefs and connect the living to the dead. As Thao (2006) acknowledged, when animal is sacrificed, the ritual is performed humanely, and with the deepest respect. The Hmong believe that all living things have soul, so “when an animal‘s life is taken, the gift must be acknowledged” (p. 91).

Now that Hmong Americans live in a different environment and not in villages, firing gunshots to inform others had been replaced by a quick telephone call or email. In that sense, the news of knowing that someone has passed away spread much more swiftly throughout the community. Because of this shift in communication, most funerals are not being withheld as family members from afar would arrive without a delay.

Because everyone works and lives with a different schedule than that of the life in the village, the funeral is held exclusively over the weekends, thus, this limits the funeral ceremony to two – three days as oppose to three – 12 days. Traditionally, the funeral would last for the entire day and into the night to until the deceased is buried.

Indeed, I have only briefly discussed some core aspects of the Hmong beliefs about life and death. Although there have been many modifications to the funeral ceremony, Hmong Americans funerals‘ still contain the core values and symbolic meanings from Laos. The qhuab ke ritual discussed earlier is considerably one of the most significant, because this ritual discusses the creation and origin of life and death, returning journey to the ancestors, and regeneration of the soul. This ritual is indeed the focal point of the funeral ceremony. Understanding the underlying symbolic meanings of the funeral ceremony would help one to comprehend what it truly means to be Hmong.

 

References
Falk, C. (2004). Hmong Instructions to the Dead [Electronic Version].  Asian folklore Studies, 1-29.

Her, V. K. (2005). Hmong Cosmology: Proposed Model, Preliminary Insights [Electronic Version]. Hmong Studies Journal, 1-25.

Her, V. K., & Lee, G. Y. (Eds.). (2009). The Impact of Globalization and Trans-Nationalism on
the Hmong. St. Paul, MN: Center of Hmong Studies.

Lee, K. (2009). Rituals, roles, and responsibilities in a Hmong funeral: A guidebook for teachers
to better understand the process their Hmong students experience in a time of family loss (Master‘s Thesis).

Thao, Y. J. (2006) The Mong Oral Tradition. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc Publishers.

Yang B. (2009, October 17). Personal Interview.

Yang K. (2009, October 24). Personal interview

 

Endnotes
1. This illustration represents the interconnection and relationship between the 3 realms. This illustration was taken from Vincent K. Her article titled, “Hmong Cosmology: Proposed Model, Preliminary Insights.”

2. Blong Yang is a highly respected leader and member of the Yang clan in Stockton, California. His knowledge about the Hmong tradition and culture has been taken into account in other researchers‘ work.

3. This stanza is repeated 7 times for each item that is listed in the diagram-Figure 2. After that, the major places will be asked with new stanzas, and then the Taw Kev will move to the last stage, which will guide the deceased to find his or her placenta and ancestors. This short stanza was taken from Vincent K Her article titled, “Hmong Cosmology: Proposed Model, Preliminary Insights.”

4. This is a short verse of the ritual song for a deceased who has poisoned their own self. The original is lengthy and will require another paper to discuss the process of the qeej and its role in the funeral ritual.

5. Dr. Kou Yang is a Hmong American professor at California State University, Stanislaus. He teaches Asian American Studies and has a vast knowledge about Hmong American issues and culture.

 

[Figure 1]

Courtesy of Vincent K. Her

 

 

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