Cultural traditions have always been a point of interest for me… how an entire populace can come up with a concept and execute it in a way that creates a unique experience in their collective lives, then convince the next generation to do the same.
In particular, traditions that deal with the afterlife were especially intriguing, and one of the oddest things I found growing up in America was that no one formally celebrated people’s deaths.
No, I don’t mean like, “Good riddance, Billy was such a jerk, let’s throw a party now that he’s kicked the bucket! Woo!”
More like the Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, where families set up altars and invite the spirits of their loved ones home to visit.
In Vietnam, instead of having a single day of the year where you invite everyone home, we celebrate the anniversary of a loved one’s death more in the fashion of a birthday… but, I suppose, more like a death-day for lack of a better term. We call it ngày giỗ.
The actual ceremony is called đám giỗ, and it’s an event to rival Thanksgiving.
My mom and aunts would spend the entire day preparing the foods that our loved one enjoyed eating when they were alive, and in the evening, the entire clan from near and far would gather in celebration of their life and the memory of their death.
Each visitor would light a stick of aromatic incense and say a prayer at the family altar — a permanent fixture in many Vietnamese homes — in the traditional belief that the smoke from the incense would guide the spirits home.
In this moment, many people speak to their loved ones as though they were still alive. The lighted incense would then be pressed into a sand filled pot, creating a stunning bouquet of twinkling flames enveloped by delicate tendrils of smoke as they smoldered.
Whether we are truly speaking to the spirit of our loved one, or just standing there rambling like loons at what may very well be the world’s largest fire hazard, makes no difference. The emotional value of this tradition is indescribable.
Not all ceremonies need to be large or grand either. Ours just happens to be because I come from a very large family. In fact, many ceremonies are quite small and humble.
My friend celebrated the anniversary of his brother’s death the other day.
He posted a photo on Facebook of his very young niece sitting by herself at the living room coffee table, eating a piece of fried chicken from a paper plate. Next to her was a framed photo of her late father, draped neatly with a black beaded rosary. In front of the picture frame was a small bowl containing another piece of fried chicken, for him.
I seldom cry at anything, but for some reason, in that moment I couldn’t stop the waterworks from coming.
Some traditions are festive and fun… some traditions are simply outdated… but some traditions… should never die.
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