Around the world, everyone celebrates birthdays, but in Vietnam, they celebrate other important dates a little differently. Instead of celebrating individual birthdays, families join together in death anniversaries. Vietnam is full of death traditions, with the most important is ancestor worship. Ancestors that aren't properly worshiped turn into malevolent ghosts that haunt family members.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Death Beliefs in an Atheist State
- Vietnamese Funeral Service Traditions & Protocol
- Vietnamese Funeral Etiquette
- Vietnamese Burials, Mourning, and Death Anniversaries
- Vietnamese Funerals: FAQs
In this guide, we’ll break down the history, traditions, and etiquette at Vietnamese funerals. Keep reading to find out what to expect at a funeral in this beautiful Southeast Asian country.
Note: No matter what a family's culture and traditions are, planning or attending a funeral is hard. If you'd like some help and guidance through the process, check out our post-loss checklist.
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Death Beliefs in an Atheist State
Vietnam is an atheist state, so you might expect a human-centered secular funeral, but that’s not always the case. Buddhist and Catholic beliefs shape death views in their own right.
Animistic beliefs (that all objects, people, and places have a spirit) are the cornerstone of Vietnamese funerals. In the past, people performed ceremonies to keep spirits happy. Living things like rivers, rocks, trees, and mountains all have a spirit. This belief dictates death planning for the Vietnamese.
Family members that die a bad (violent) death are more likely to be a bitter spirit than those that die a good death. Traditionally, blood sacrifices and magic words made spirits happy. In modern times, and for practicality’s sake, home altars are now set up to ease the deceased’s journey into becoming an ancestor.
Vietnamese Funeral Service Traditions & Protocol
Now that you’re familiar with Vietnam’s religious history, let’s take a look at how religions influence modern funeral customs. The ceremony you see may be different depending on the region and country of the deceased but the community involvement is the same.
Funerals are a time for close and extended family and friends to come together to assist their loved one into the afterlife.
Tip: If you plan on hosting a virtual funeral using a service like GatheringUs, discuss with your funeral planner or director on how you can adapt these customs for a live stream and encourage online guest participation.
First, it’s important to see that ancestor worship is common, even encouraged, for Vietnam Catholics. In a Vietnamese Catholic home, you will find altars to God and the deceased next to each other. Catholic funeral customs, like a mass and wake, are interwoven with Buddhist protocols to create a unique funeral experience.
Vietnamese bishops recently released a set of guidelines focusing on ancestor worship for Catholic families to follow. Depending on the family’s wishes you may see some of these practices or all of them.
- The family bathes and washes the body. They dress the deceased in their finest clothes for the vigil.
- Family and friends take turns keeping vigil over the body throughout the night.
- Close family members hold prayer services before laying the deceased in the coffin.
- Family and friends give offerings to the deceased like incense, food, and money.
- The family lights incense daily to remember their loved one.
Catholic families hold one mass, but Vietnamese Catholics offer mass for ancestral souls year-round. There is a mass on the 7th, 49th, and 100th day after death. After three years, a ‘completion mass’ is held—symbolic of the soul’s passage as an ancestor into the afterlife.
Vietnamese Buddhist funerals
Most religious Vietnamese are Buddhists. Even if the family isn’t Buddhist you may find Buddhist traditions present, so it’s useful to be familiar with them.
You should first find out the ‘school’ of Buddhism the family belongs to if they are Buddhists. Most Vietnamese Buddhists Belong to the Mahayana school. Here are the most common funeral rituals so you can know what to expect at a Buddhist funeral:
- The day when death takes place is incredibly important. An unlucky day means bad fortune for the family. The family will choose a ‘lucky’ day for their loved one’s funeral, so prepare to have a flexible schedule when planning to attend.
- The funeral will last three days. The family places the body in the coffin on the first day, relatives and friends visit on the second, and on the third, they bury or cremate the body (cremation is a traditional Buddhist approach, but customs differ among families).
- You can expect to take part in lighting the funeral pyre if the family chooses cremation.
- Monks chant and pray in the days leading to the funeral and during the ceremony.
Death is another part of life for Vietnamese Buddhists. You will see the body treated with the utmost care. This is so the spirit can gently move into higher states and be reborn in a better realm. The deceased’s spirit finds a new life and body to begin the cycle of rebirth over again.
Vietnamese funerals in the U.S.
The Vietnamese funeral you attend in the U.S. may have some of the traditions above or all of them. Be sure to find out the family’s religious preferences before attending.
It may be surprising to you how openly the family talks about death. The deceased continues to lives as an ancestor. Depending on the way they died it will be a joyous or somber occasion. Death is a logical next step for Vietnamese elders that lived a full, happy life.
You’ll see family and friends taking photos of their loved one in the casket. Family members might try to crawl into the casket to be closer to the deceased. Later, the family sends photographic mementos to family and friends that couldn't attend.
A funeral procession is a colorful event. In Vietnam, you’ll find musicians playing gongs and drums to honor the deceased’s journey to the afterlife.
Family and friends sing hymns and soft music plays during a Catholic mass. Funeral songs aren’t played at Buddhist ceremonies. Instead, you’ll most likely hear monks chanting throughout the funeral.
Vietnamese families share food with their lost loved one. It’s a symbolic act of honoring that the deceased is still with them. If you have an extended stay with the family, you will see them giving food offerings at the home altar before each meal.
Superstitions or folklore
Ancestor worship isn’t as much a superstition as it is a religious practice in Vietnam. It even has it’s own name—Đạo Ông Bà. There are customs followed depending on the family’s Buddhist or Catholic preference. For example, Vietnamese Buddhists pray for the deceased for 49 days. This is how long it takes the spirit to be re-born again into a new life.
Superstitions differed based on location, too. Families re-bury bones in Northern Vietnam after three years in shrines. This ensures all the family ancestors are together in the afterlife. Ethnic groups, like the Hmong, slaughter cows to make sure the deceased travels into the afterlife.
Vietnamese Funeral Etiquette
Now that you’re familiar with some of the traditions you’ll encounter at a Vietnamese funeral, it’s helpful to know how to behave. Vietnamese funerals have different etiquette customs you might not encounter in the U.S.
What to wear
For the burial, it’s appropriate to wear white or black depending on your relationship to the deceased. If you’re a close family member you’ll wear a white robe or hat. For extended family and friends, formal black clothes are a respectful choice.
Presents or condolences
You can show respect through gifts or words of condolence, depending on your ability and relationship to the family. Gifts like wreaths for the casket, flowers, or money are all good choices. If you choose flowers make sure to avoid red—a color reserved for happy occasions, not funerals.
Vietnamese Burials, Mourning, and Death Anniversaries
The burial is another time for the family to grieve and say their last goodbye. The deceased will be buried or cremated based on the family’s wishes and religious preferences.
As mentioned before, death anniversaries bring generations of family members together in ancestor worship. Families share stories, food, and offerings at the altar. The family believes that the deceased’s soul comes back on this day to share in a feast and meet new family members.
Vietnamese Funerals: FAQs
Do you still have questions about attending a Vietnamese funeral? Here’s some more useful information before you attend.
Why do Vietnamese people eat vegetarian at a funeral?
Not all Vietnamese people eat vegetarian at a funeral, but most do. This tradition is rooted in Buddhism. Buddhist don’t eat meat products 49 days after the funeral (and most don’t eat them at all!) so the deceased’s soul isn’t connected to death.
How long is a Vietnamese funeral?
After the date of the funeral is carefully chosen, the funeral wake, mass or prayer, and burial all together last three days.
Why do people throw beans at a Vietnamese funeral?
Beans are a food offering to the deceased’s spirit. Mung beans are especially popular to use in funeral dishes across Vietnam.
What do white and yellow headbands mean at a Vietnamese funeral?
Close family members wear white or yellow headbands to signal their close ties to the deceased. It’s a way to show respect and mourn their loved one.
A Glance Into the Past
Less access to elders and changing politics leave funeral customs in flux. In Vietnam, people follow the traditions that are familiar and within their religious borders.
Vietnamese funerals offer you a brief look at the colorful culture of its people. A mix of political and religious history has made these funerals special to witness.
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- “Vietnamese bishops issue guidelines on ancestor veneration.” Ucanews, November 4, 2019, www.ucanews.org/news/vietnamese-bishops-issue-guidelines-on-ancestor-worship/86469
- Nguyen, Peter. “Theological and Cultural Foundation.” www.macsphere.mcmaster.ca/bitstream/11375/10557/1/fulltext.pdf
- Hoang, Dieu-Hien. “Death Rituals in Vietnamese Society.” December 01, 2000, www.webs01.hsl.washington.edu/clinical/end-of-life/death-in-viet
- Phung, Tuyen. “A Vietnamese Buddhist Funeral.” Chuan Quang Minh Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, August 3, 2009. www.quangminh.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=620:a-vietnamese-buddhist-funeral