Funeral traditions reveal a lot about a culture, beliefs, and views about death. In the United States, most people are intimately familiar with the traditional Christian funeral and what this looks like. What about funerals that don’t adhere to this norm? One unique funeral tradition worth observing yourself is the Laotian funeral.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Laotian Views of Death and Dying
- Laotian Funeral Traditions
- What Happens After a Laotian Funeral?
- Laotian Funeral Etiquette
In Laos, most people follow Buddhist traditions around death and dying. Since this means a belief in reincarnation, there are many practices around preparing the body and honoring the dead.
Whether you’re attending a Laotian funeral yourself or you’d like to learn more about Laotian culture, let’s take a look at what happens during a Laotian funeral. Sometimes the best way to get to know a place and its culture is through death.
Virtual funeral tip: Pandemics, illness, and other issues can cause guests to miss a traditional funeral. You can allow faraway guests to attend by hosting a virtual funeral using a service like GatheringUs. You can adapt many of these traditions, like songs, prayers, and even traditional funeral food, to include your online guests. Brainstorm with your funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.
Laotian Views of Death and Dying
Though the majority of people in Laos are Buddhist, that doesn’t mean this practice exists on its own. For the Lao people, Buddhism and Animism exist in harmony.
Most people believe in spirits known as “phi,” and these spirits are often considered the cause of illnesses and death. To understand death, dying, and funeral practices, you must understand how these spirits play a role in daily life (and beyond).
Phi, spirits, and ghosts
In Laos, spirits are believed to coexist with the living. As such, they’re meant to be respected. Some spirits are connected to elements like earth, air, fire, and water. Others live within humans.
However, some spirits wander from the body, and this is said to cause illness. In addition, many people in Laos believe that the spirit of someone who died by accident or in an act of violence isn’t reincarnated. Instead, their soul becomes a bad spirit. Humans gift offerings to ensure these spirits treat them kindly.
Most of the traditions in Laos and Hmong funerals relate to this idea of spirits existing in everyday life. They’re tied to every living thing, and they affect the way Lao people view the world.
Buddhism and reincarnation
As mentioned above, most people in Laos practice Buddhism combined with ancient beliefs. Buddhism heavily influences what Loa people believe about death and dying. In Buddhism, there’s a cycle of death and rebirth known as samsara.
Through this process, the goal is to ultimately escape samsara to achieve what’s known as nirvana or an end to suffering. After death, someone’s energy passes into another form until they eventually reach nirvana.
Good actions like ethical conduct and wisdom, Buddhists work closer to enlightenment. The better their actions are during their life, the more likely they’ll get a better rebirth. Bad actions have the opposite effect. When they finally reach nirvana, the Buddhist person is no longer reborn as they are now awake to reality.
The only constant is change
A key factor in Buddhist teaching is that the only constant in life is change. Buddhists believe that nothing in life (or death) is permanent. Everything changes, and this is the natural order of things.
Everlasting souls don’t exist because things simply change. There is no such thing as a permanent soul or self. One of the Buddha’s primary teachings is not to fear death. To live well means to bring a positive rebirth, and this is something to celebrate. As such, many people in Laos feel comfortable about death, and it’s not something to be feared.
Laotian Funeral Traditions
There are a lot of funeral traditions in Laos that are important to those in this culture. These traditions mainly surround cultural taboos and superstitions, so it’s important to know what to expect.
Preparing the body
As someone approaches death, the family is encouraged to recite Buddhist scripture. This is a time for religious study and preparation. If the individual is no longer able to speak, the family can whisper scripture and Buddha’s name in their ear.
Once they’ve passed, the body is washed in a ritual bathing ceremony. Water is poured over the deceased person’s hands as a cleansing ritual. The body is finally placed into a casket for a wake.
During a Laos wake, friends and family are welcome to pay their respects. This is a time for supporting the grieving family. Unless the person died unexpectedly or in an accident, the body is to be kept in the home for at least a day before the funeral.
Laotian funeral order of service
The funeral procession is led by a Buddhist monk. It’s followed by nuns who wear white to honor the purity of the soul. Family and friends follow the nuns, typically with the casket. For this procession, male mourners traditionally will shave their heads and wear a Buddhist monk robe.
The casket is placed on top of a raised gravesite or pyre. In Buddhism, cremation is the most common form of laying the body to rest. The nuns will tie a white ceremonial cloth to the coffin, and the family sits around it for the remainder of the ceremony.
The funeral service can be either simple or extravagant, depending on the family’s wishes. Monks lead the service with songs and prayers. Finally, family members offer candles and flowers to the deceased. Then, female family members light the pyre at the end of the ceremony.
Popular songs and prayers
A monk leads the Laos funeral, and an important part of the ceremony is the chanting of the sutras. Chanting is a way to prepare the mind for meditation in Buddhism, so it’s a common part of all rituals.
The monk leads these chants to ensure the guests are in the right frame of mind for the remainder of the service. It’s a powerful part of the grieving process for many loved ones.
What Happens After a Laotian Funeral?
Much of the tradition around Laotian funerals happen after the ceremony itself. Memorial services don’t end at the funeral. They actually continue for months.
Both burial and cremation are acceptable in Laos, though it’s more common for people to choose cremation. In Buddhism, cremation is the traditional way to send a body to its next life.
In a traditional funeral service, the body is lit on the pyre by female family members. Pregnant women are not allowed to attend the service because it’s believed that the deceased spirit might reincarnate into the unborn child. After a final prayer, the pyre is lit and the body is burned.
The ashes are gathered to be put into a small urn. The family usually scatters some or all of these ashes at an altar or keeps them to honor the loved one’s memory.
Food or drink
One of the most important things to know about Laos funerals is that there are a lot of beliefs around food and drink. For example, there should be no killing of any animals for meals during the funeral time. In addition, there should be no noodle dishes made until after the funeral since this could be a string to tie the deceased to their former life.
Though food and drink are served at the funeral, none of this is to be taken from the service. It’s to remain there as part of the process. However, it is common for friends and family to bring food and drink to the family’s home.
Laotian Funeral Etiquette
Etiquette is an essential part of all funeral traditions. Whether you’re a guest at a funeral or just want to learn more, it’s always important to tread carefully to avoid offending someone after the death of a loved one.
As mentioned above, men related to the deceased typically shave their heads and wear a monk robe to funerals. Otherwise, if you’re wondering what to wear to a funeral, most other guests wear black. Black, in Laos, like in other cultures, is a way to respect the dead.
It’s always a good idea to dress conservatively to a funeral. This is not the place for flashy clothing. The simpler, the better. The focus is on the rituals and traditions, not the dress.
Offering condolences or gifts
In many cultures, it’s important to know how to offer condolences. In Laos, people usually bring money, flowers, and food to the funeral as a way to show respect. These are kept by the family after the service.
It’s considered bad luck to talk ill of the deceased or to speak about the death negatively. As explained prior, death is a part of life in Buddhism. This is a time for focusing on the here and now.
Understanding Laotian Funeral Traditions
This guide offers a simple introduction to Laotian funeral traditions. Though there’s more that can’t be summed up in a simple article, this culture is home to many unique ideas and beliefs about death and what happens after.
Learning about how different parts of the world handle their dead is a valuable glimpse into worlds outside of our own. The more we learn about others, the clearer it is that we’re all the same. Though the Lao people might practice different funeral customs, it all follows the same blueprint of honoring the dead and remembering their legacy.
If you're looking for more on funeral planning or etiquette, read our guides on funeral songs and sympathy card etiquette.
- “Animism, SPirits, Funerals, and Superstitions in Laos.” Facts and Details. FactsandDetails.com.
- “Bitesize: Life After Death.” BBC. BBC.co.uk.
- Ramon, Jason Cristiano. “Funeral Traditions of the Laos Buddhist Culture.” Classroom: Laos. 29 September 2017. Classroom.synonym.com.