Funeral traditions in Vietnamese culture can vary based on religious beliefs. Regardless of customs, the focus of the service is to respectfully farewell a loved one. The following guide outlines everything you need to know about Vietnamese funeral traditions.
How Long are Vietnamese Funerals?
Traditional Vietnamese funerals are multi-day events that last anywhere from one to three days or more. This usually includes a wake, mass or prayer service, and burial or cremation.
Vietnamese Funeral Customs
In Vietnam, it is common for the deceased to remain at home after their death until the funeral. Where there is limited space or for most Vietnamese living in western societies, the family will engage a funeral home to assist with proceedings. The key steps include:
- Family members will wash and prepare the body before dressing the deceased in white clothing or semi-formal attire.
- If there is a long delay between the death and burial then an embalmer will attend and support with preservation of the body.
- The arrangement of an altar. This includes a picture of the deceased along with flowers, incense, and food offerings (e.g. bowls of rice, fruit, and tea).
- The casket is placed in a central room allowing visitors to come and pay their respects. It is during this time that they share food and toast to celebrate the deceased’s life.
- Family members hold constant vigil over the body. A series of prayers or blessings will occur during this time if the deceased was religious.
- A funeral service is held on or just before the final day. In Vietnam, reading eulogies or memories of the deceased is uncommon. These topics are usually shared with the family in an informal manner during the wake period.
- At sunrise or very early on the final day, a procession to transport the coffin to a gravesite or crematory will occur. The oldest grandchild or child is responsible for holding a framed image of the deceased along the way.
- A marching band will lead the hearse which is followed by attendees. The music chosen reflects the happier or somber (e.g. tragic circumstances) nature of the death.
- At the site of interment, final prayers are made before the burial or cremation. The altar from home is placed on top of the gravesite.
- Following the interment, family and guests will return to the home for a meal or funeral reception.
Meaning of White Headband at Vietnamese Funerals
Contrary to standard black attire adorned in western cultures, the immediate family of the deceased traditionally wear white headbands during a Vietnamese funeral. They will usually adorn white clothing or shrouds as well. This is done to signify respect and to show mourning. More distant relatives such as grandchildren may wear yellow headbands.
Vietnamese Funeral Etiquette – What to Do & Not to Do
Understanding Vietnamese funeral customs allows you to express condolences with respect. While beliefs vary between individuals, the most common etiquette standards are outlined below.
How to Act at a Vietnamese Funeral
There are no unique expectations of conduct at a Vietnamese wake and funeral. While you should refrain from cheerful behavior, this is consistent with any western funeral service.
As Vietnamese funerals will likely have some unique customs, you should respectfully observe them and feel no pressure to engage. When in doubt, observe how the family behaves during the funeral and be guided by them.
What do I Say? Vietnamese Sympathy Message
If you are able to speak Vietnamese, then some sympathy messages include:
- I am very sorry for your loss – Tôi rất tiếc về sự mất mát của bạn
- May the soul of (name of deceased) rest in peace – Cầu mong linh hồn của (tên người đã khuất) được yên nghỉ
- I am here if you need anything – Tôi ở đây nếu bạn cần bất cứ điều gì
- Hope you and your family will overcome this pain – Mong bạn và gia đình sẽ vượt qua nỗi đau này
- My condolences to you and your family – Tôi xin gửi lời chia buồn tới bạn và gia đình
- (Name of deceased) is resting with the lord – (Tên người đã khuất) đang yên nghỉ với chúa
If you do not speak Vietnamese, then general condolences will be welcomed by the grieving. A simple line such as “I’m deeply sorry for your loss” is appropriate.
What Do You Give at a Vietnamese Funeral?
Those attending a Vietnamese funeral usually provide gifts as a gesture of sympathy. Flowers, money, or food are commonly shared with grieving families.
While offerings will be much appreciated, do not feel pressured to give anything as your presence will be welcome enough. This is particularly true if you are not of Vietnamese ethnicity yourself.
What Do You Wear to a Vietnamese Funeral?
Semi-formal black colored clothing is appropriate attire for a Vietnamese funeral. In line with tradition, immediate family members are expected to wear white and adorn matching headbands.
What Flowers are Appropriate for a Vietnamese Funeral?
There are few conventions around floral gifts as with western funerals. However, you are best placed to avoid red flowers as this color is reserved for happy occasions such as the new year.
The most gifted funeral flower in Vietnamese culture is the white lotus. This symbolizes the pure cyclical nature of life. If the lotus is unavailable then any white or yellow flower (if the deceased is elderly) will be appropriate. Many also choose to arrange the display as a wreath so that it can be draped over the coffin.
Can I Take Photos at a Vietnamese Funeral?
While you should refrain from using your phone for leisure during the service, it is acceptable to take photos and videos during the funeral. The deceased is viewed with similar reverence to the living and so the same norms for taking pictures apply. As a courtesy, ensure that your phone remains silent when in use.
Should I Attend if I am Pregnant?
Many superstitions surround pregnant women in Vietnamese and wider Asian culture. In general, it can be viewed as offensive or bad luck for an expectant mother to attend a Vietnamese funeral. This is due to a range of beliefs such as the risk of the deceased’s spirit entering the baby, or the mourning causing the child to be a “crier” following birth.
The best approach is to consult the family before the wake or funeral. They will appreciate the opportunity to be open about their beliefs without offending you.
Vietnamese Funeral Superstitions
There are many Vietnamese superstitions that are evident following a death. These somewhat uncustomary views or actions arise from cultural beliefs, with some including:
- Pregnancy is viewed as causing bad luck. Due to this, expectant mums are encouraged to avoid funerals as they risk putting an omen on the grieving.
- Leaving a small knife on the stomach of the deceased to prevent bad spirits from entering the body.
- The belief that souls of the deceased live on after death and a funeral is critical to entering the afterlife. Mourners who cry too hard may “pull” the soul so they should exercise restraint or risk a ghost remaining on earth.
- Shedding tears onto the body can be a bad omen. Those prone to waterworks may compromise the future success of their children.
- During visitation, menstruating women should not light incense as it is considered to be bad luck.
- Gold coins and rice are placed in the mouth of the deceased during the preparation of the body. This represents the belief that the body will one day return to the earth in line with the cycle of life.
- Low denominations of money are thrown onto the ground during the funeral procession. This allows the soul to find its way home.
- Placement of an oil lamp under the coffin during the wake will keep the spirit warm.
- Family members will burn fake items made of paper such as money, iPhones, jewelry, and cars. This extends from the belief that loved ones will receive these items in the afterlife.
It is important to note that superstitions vary between religions and regions (e.g. North and South Vietnam have different approaches). While some people are avid believers, a large majority of Vietnamese people remain indifferent to these views.
Vietnamese Funeral Customs by Religion
Knowing what to expect at a Vietnamese funeral is largely influenced by religion. According to Staticia, 14.9% of the population are practicing Buddhists while 7.3% are Roman Catholic. The rest of the country is divided between atheism and smaller religious groups. Here we focus on the largest two congregations and their funeral rites.
Vietnamese Buddhist Funeral Customs (49 days)
With Buddhism being the most common religion in Vietnam, traditions are widely practiced across the country. The main Buddhist customs you may observe at a Vietnamese funeral include:
- The funeral occurring at a random time and day. Grieving families will consult with a fortune-teller to select a “lucky” time for the service.
- Many Buddhists believe that the soul is transitioning out of the body for up to eight hours after death. The body must be completely cold before it can be washed and prepared so as not to disrupt this process.
- Displays of wealth are not appropriate during the funeral. The deceased is dressed in casual clothing as they would wear daily and the chosen coffin is modest.
- The majority of Buddhists are cremated rather than buried. This extends from the belief that death is an end to the body and not the spirit.
- Embalming, burial, organ donation, and medical donation of the body are acceptable in the Buddhist faith.
- The Vietnamese Buddhist funeral chant is a key feature of the service. These prayers and chants by monks allow the deceased to be in the right mindset for reincarnation. Recordings of the chant are played where the monks or family are occupied.
- Many Buddhist funeral ceremonies extend over a long period of time to assist the spirit of the deceased in transition. In the Buddhist tradition, 49 days is a common timeframe as they believe this is when rebirth takes place. Chants and prayers are conducted daily until this time has passed.
Vietnamese Catholic Funeral Customs
You will find that many of the funeral customs in the Catholic faith overlap with those of Buddhism. Ancestral worship which includes the use of an altar with pictures, incense, and various food offerings is an example of this. The main Catholic traditions observed in a Vietnamese funeral include:
- Most funeral rites are performed in the presence of the body. If the deceased will be cremated, then this is likely to be a final aspect of the service.
- Embalming and organ donation are acceptable in the Catholic faith. More Vietnamese are now being cremated after the Vatican eased restrictions on this practice. However, ashes are to be interred together and not scattered or kept at home.
- Family members will bathe and prepare the deceased in formal clothing. A rosary is placed in the person’s hands.
- During the wake period (usually three days), loved ones will keep constant vigil over the body. They will recite the rosary, sing hymns, and a priest will hold prayer services with mourners. Incense will be lit on a daily basis in tribute.
- A traditional funeral mass will occur in a church after the wake period. Interment of the deceased will follow at the site of burial. The priest then conducts a Rite of Committal, a final send-off from the community in the form of prayers.
- Compared to the western practice of one funeral mass, Vietnamese Catholics hold many services for the deceased. These usually occur a week after death, and then on the 49th and 100th day.
- Annual death anniversaries known as “Dam Gio” are held after the period of mourning.
Vietnamese Funeral FAQs
Do Vietnamese believe in reincarnation?
Whether a Vietnamese person has this belief is influenced by their religion. Those following Buddhism (14.9% of the population) believe in reincarnation, however, the majority of the country is atheist and do not have firm views on this.
How do Vietnamese celebrate death?
In Vietnam, a death anniversary is viewed as a celebration of life and a festive occasion. The family of the deceased will prepare a banquet to share and visit the grave of their loved one to pray. These “giỗ” days occur yearly or more often depending on religion and beliefs.
Do we need to give money at a Vietnamese funeral?
While it is common practice to give money in an envelope to assist with funeral costs, it is not mandatory to do so. Those attending a Vietnamese funeral may choose to offer flowers, food, or verbal condolences to the grieving.