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Hired funeral mourners strike an unreal note

Update: January, 04/2012 - 09:00

by Hong Minh

 

Have you ever wondered what your funeral would be like? Would it be full of tears from relatives and friends mourning your death, or with merry conversation and laughter?

Some of my friends started thinking about how their funerals would be organised after watching a video clip posted on YouTube last week. In the clip, which shows the funeral ceremony of a 37-year-old man in the southern province of Dong Nai's Thong Nhat District, a wife mourns beside her husband's coffin by singing his favourite Vietnamese pop song Tim lai giac mo (Recall a Dream). She sang into a microphone with an electronic backing track.

Although many people said she was brave to say goodbye to her husband through song, others from social network communities have expressed outrage. Many said such an upbeat environment was not a real funeral, and assumed the wife was insincere by singing. Others said such practices were popular among Catholics in the southern provinces.

However many in northern and central regions said the wife should have cried or acted in a more traditional, modest way to signify her grief. The case made me think about a funeral in Ha Noi's Cau Giay District last month, where I noticed many cries of anguish came from hired mourners, not bereaved relatives.

The head of the hired group of mourners from Ha Noi's Thanh Oai District Nguyen Van Moc said his group was hired to cry for two whole days at the funeral. Under the contract, a female member of the group would make heart-rendering cries on behalf of the women in the deceased's household. Moc said members of his group were often hired to cry for people who were too busy or simply had trouble crying.

"We can really earn money from this job," Moc said. "Besides the contract money, normally VND4-5 million (US$180-230) depending on ‘dry' or ‘wet' cry (those with or without tears), we also receive small tips for extra cries." He said that in the cold season, which normally has more funerals, his group could earn a steady income.

History professor Nguyen Quang Ngoc, head of the Institute for Vietnamese Studies and Development Sciences, told me crying was not compulsory as funeral customs could differ, but he said it was understandable to have hired mourners.

"There is a traditional understanding that a funeral is not a real one without crying," Ngoc said. "Many people believe the death of a person needs the cries, which show affection from the living and that without crying, the dead would feel lonely."

Ngoc said hired mourners were traditional parts of many funerals, like the bands playing sorrowful sounds.

"Originally, the band played to support the cries of the dead person's relatives," he said. "Gradually, the relatives give them money to mourn for the dead person through rhythmic verses."

Kieu Van Thanh from Dong Ha Village in Ha Noi's outer district of Quoc Oai, is part of a family of paid mourners going back six generations. The Kieu family also has an eight-piece band and has created their own verses to cry to at funerals.

"In months with many contracts, we have to mourn almost 28 days," he said. "In lesser months, we still work at 15 or 16 funerals."

Thanh added that he also received job offers from neighbouring cities and provinces such as Hai Phong, Hung Yen and Nam Dinh.

I attended the funeral of my friend Nguyen Linh's mother in Ha Dong District the other day. She told me that since she and her little brother were too busy working out funeral arrangements, they couldn't cry. They were labelled "heartless" and "disrespectful" for the absence of crying.

Linh added that some relatives advised her to hire professional mourners to make it "more like a funeral". She refused.

"Such affections should have come from our hearts, the fake ones don't count," she said "My mother knew exactly whether we loved her or not, regardless of tears."

I agreed with her.

I imagine my funeral to be full of tears and laughter, and anything else my relatives and friends wish to do without having to pay for someone to do it. If someone was kind enough to play a recording of my favourite song A whole new world, that would be enough for me. — VNS

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