Among Hmong, death is a long journey back to the womb

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Mon, February 7th, 2011

Vang Pao’s funeral will continue for six days straight and feature animal sacrifices, the burning of paper offerings and a spiritual guide called a pointer who will lead Pao back to his mother’s womb.

Vang Pao led the Hmong of Laos from their remote villages to the United States. His recent death will be marked by six days of mourning.

In the mid-1970s, Pao led Laos’s Hmong people from their farms and villages to fight the North Vietnamese; he later helped resettle thousands of Hmong in California and the Upper Midwest. The funeral, being held at the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center, is expected to draw 60,000 Hmong from around the world. Qeej musicians will play traditional four-barreled bamboo flutes, music necessary to help Pao overcome certain obstacles on his journey as the pointer leads him homeward. They will stop and visit the places Pao lived in his life. “The first virtual stop will be the general’s longtime home in Westminster,” said Wang Her Vang, one of the elders overseeing the funeral. “Then, we’ll go to Montana, France, Thailand and Laos.”

Eventually the pointer will bring Pao back to his birthplace, the Laotian village of Longhay, and the actual moment of his birth. Pao will be reunited with his parents and godparents then re-enter his mother’s womb. Before he can enter heaven he must receive forgiveness for past sins. The pointer will thank the nature gods and ancestor spirits for giving Pao life and settle any outstanding debts by burning paper money and sacrificing chickens, pigs and cows, which will later be served to funeral guests. The pointer will also toss a set of carved bamboo sticks resembling a horn. If they don’t land correctly, the pointer and Pao must retrace their route and burn more paper money. “Once Vang Pao’s record is cleared he can be reincarnated and move on,” said Wang Her Vang. “Otherwise you’ll be dead in the graveyard all your life and be a wanderer.”

The Hmong have been around for thousands of years. A nomadic people, they roamed the remote mountainous regions of southern China, Thailand and Laos. Their constant movement was a result of the slash and burn agriculture they practiced and flight from the aggressive cultures that dominated the areas in which they lived. Although the Hmong have been influenced by immigration and urbanization, their funeral rites have remained largely intact.

During a traditional Hmong funeral in Laos, a female from the village guides the funeral procession to the gravesite. In order to confuse evil spirits, the procession will change course frequently. The traditional burial site is on the side of a mountain; the body is placed facing west, because Hmong believe that west is the direction of death and if the head faces east it will be blinded by the sun. The exact location of the grave is determined by older members of the community and depends on the status of the person being buried. Once the body is in the ground the stretcher used to transport the deceased is destroyed while onlookers burn incense and place stones atop the grave. The final step is to construct a fence around the grave that protects the site from harm.

In 1996, a documentary filmmaker named Joseph Davy who had spent years with the Hmong in Wisconsin was invited to take part in the funeral of a deaf-mute Hmong man named Por Than. In Laos Than had worked the fields and cared for children, in America he wove baskets. His funeral lasted three days. Initially, there was a delay because a metal casket was ordered; Hmong’s forbid metal caskets because it is believed a metal object buried with the deceased can be used to put a curse on surviving family members. To stay up the filmmaker and other men involved in the ceremony smoked endless cigarettes, drank Mountain Dew and played cards.

“Relatives of the deceased would search out people who had contributed money towards the ceremony,” explains Davy. “Then they would take them aside one by one and form a semi-circle together. Bowing over with outstretched arms and cupped hands, Por Than’s relatives formally gave their thanks and gratitude. I listened as they spoke in Hmong, ‘We give you thanks. We the grief-stricken did not call upon you—it is our custom. You have come to console and comfort us. You have brought money to help our relatives. Next time we will help you. We will remember you forever.’”