by Hong Minh
Last week, a man came out of nowhere on Le Duan Street and ran into my motorbike. There was a funeral ahead, and the hearses were spreading bank notes and votive papers along the road. There were VND1,000, VND2,000 and even VND5,000 notes lying all around the road or flying in the air. The man chased these notes without even looking where he was going.
It was actually not the first time I saw someone risking his life for funeral money.
A month ago, when I got stuck on National Highway 1 in northern Ninh Binh Province on my way back to Ha Noi, I saw an accident happen when someone tried to catch funeral banknotes and was hit by a lorry.
Tragedy followed tragedy.
Spreading real money in funerals is becoming increasingly popular. But when asked, not many people understand the meaning of the custom.
My 70-year-old neighbour Nguyen Thi Lan, who claims to be a faithful Buddhist and has followed traditional practices for many years, cannot give a clear explanation.
"I don't know exactly but I think the more money we spread, the smoother the funeral goes," she said, adding that throwing money is especially important when the funeral passes a crossroad or a bridge.
Lan added that normally people just threw VND200 and VND500, which are the smallest banknotes in the currency system, in funerals, just as when they go to pagodas. But she admitted that sometimes people also threw larger banknotes.
Monk Thich Hai Hoan at Tu Van Pagoda in Hoang Mai District explained that there were two goals of spreading votive paper gold lumps and coins in funerals, which came from olden times.
"The paper coins were for the ghosts so that they would not bully the dead people, while the paper gold lumps would mark the way for dead people's spirits to find the way back home," he said.
The monk said that people lately had misunderstood and distorted the tradition by spreading real money together with paper bills.
"Living people can offer some paper money to the dead if they truly want to follow the tradition," he said. "The banknotes are just valuable in the living world and should not be wasted that way."
The monk repeated that throwing real money had become a meaningless custom that should be gotten rid of as soon as possible.
"While such money is wasted in funerals, many living people are still hungry and living in poverty," he said, "Spending the money to help the needy is the best way for relatives to display their filial piety to the dead."
Cultural researcher Hoang Tuan Cu agreed with the monk's explanation of why paper money is used in funerals, saying that while people in the past did not have the custom of spreading real money, many people today believed erroneously that this was a traditional custom.
"People in the past just used real coins to place on the eyes and mouths of dead people," he said.
"Spreading real money along the funeral road reflects people's disrespect for the national currency," Cu said, "It can not only cause social disorder in a broad sense, but also lead to traffic accidents when people chase money around in the middle of the street."
The cultural researcher added that a civilised funeral in modern times should only be held and worshipped at home and at the graveyard.
"The spreading of money, both paper bills and real ones, should not be considered a civilised thing to do," he said.
There are some legal documents related to the spreading of banknotes including the Prime Minister's decision 130 in 2003 and the Law on the State Bank of Viet Nam in 2010, which all ban any forms of destroying the Vietnamese currency, and the Ministry of Culture, Information and Tourism's Circular 04 in 2011, which bans spreading both Vietnamese and foreign currencies in funerals. Violators can be fined VND1-3 million (US$47-142).
However, it seems like these rules have not been enforced. Just as a staff member at the State Bank of Viet Nam's Department of Issue and Vault, who did not want to have his name in print, said to me: "There are always regulations, but tradition is a much bigger thing."
"And since there is no strict punishment for doing this, people will continue spreading small banknotes, thus possibly leading to inflation as well."
As for me, I think that throwing money in funerals should be stopped - not only for the above reasons, but also because it has caused environmental pollution. — VNS