Memorial Service for Thuy's Grandmother 26/12/2010
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Tan Chau, An Giang Province, Viet Nam
My girlfriend's grandmother died on November 8th 2010. Her corpse lay in state for four days before she was buried. I didn't see her corpse and I haven't seen her grave yet, but today - Boxing Day - I attended a memorial service for her in Tan Chau. It was held in the small upstairs room of a relative's house. The room was packed with people sitting on the floor. About 24 people. The dead woman's son, Thuy's father, was there at the front. Thuy's mother was missing - at home with a toothache. There were people outside the room, in the house, making noise, including a baby crying. The focal point was the 'altar', supporting a large colour portrait of the dead woman, plastic flowers, a pot of smoking incense sticks, and bowls of fruit, rice and meat. Above the portrait was draped a yellow cloth bearing Chinese characters. Below was a poster with the dead woman's age (94) and birth and death dates. Everybody was silent and wearing a white bandana around the forehead - like a bandage. Nothing black was worn - as in China, white seems to be the Vietnamese colour of death. I sat on a chair at the entrance to the room and watched. The people ignored me. I would have liked to have taken pictures, or even a video, but this would probably have been impolite. When Thuy's young niece, 'Bia Tuoi', arrived late and sat down next to me, she was not wearing a bandana, so Thuy stood up and gave her one. There were three 'priests' - two in white robes, who said nothing, and one dressed in saffron, who chanted continuously facing the altar. As he chanted, he struck a wooden stick lightly against a wooden bowl. As the saffron-robed priest chanted, another priest fiddled with the food bowls, putting pieces of meat in with the rice, as if preparing a meal for a living person. At the end of the chanting, each person allowed the saffron-robed priest to cut the bandana they were wearing into two pieces. After the bandana-cutting was over, the priest used a white flower to sprinkle the head of each person with water. He then took a comb and combed the water into their hair. After this, each person bowed deep, with hands clasped, before the altar. At the end of the ceremony I took various pictures of the altar. Relatives of the deceased, especially her son, wanted their photos taken next to her portrait on the altar. There was no visible grief at the ceremony. The woman had died 7 weeks before, which probably explains this. As soon as the ceremony was over, everybody relaxed and went downstairs for a meal and drinks. I took away a printed sheet with all the dates of the funeral observances for the dead woman. There are several other ceremonies planned for the next two months.