Tradition in Hmong Funerals

Fear of death is ubiquitous. What precedes death is as unwelcome as one's prospects in the afterlife. In Anne Fadiman's book, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, And The Collision Of Two Cultures”, she describes the rituals and traditions of the Hmong people. 

Central to Ms. Fadiman's theme in the book, is the fact that the Hmong are a death-denying culture. Death is not acknowledged by the Hmong and they cannot speak of it. The Hmong use beliefs and rituals to help redefine the problem of mortality. 

Hmong Funeral Rituals 

These are all part of the elaborate collective ritual performances for the dead. These rituals take place over 3-days and include:
  • Burning incense 
  • Stylized lamentation and Chanting
  • Dancing
  • Drum beating
  • Playing a Qeej - The qeej player is meant to guide a dead person’s soul back through the twelve heavens. Without a qeej player at the funeral, it is believed that a soul cannot be guided on its afterlife travels, cannot be reborn, and might make surviving relatives physically ill. In fact, if the qeej player is good, it is felt that the soul will have no trouble following directions in the afterlife. (A qeej player plays Ger Xiong Qeej Funeral Song in video below.)
  • Washing the body
  • Dressing of the body in special garments. Ideally, funeral garments are brought to a terminal person in hospital. The belief is that if the dying person is not dressed properly before death, once they die the family will always dream of the deceased as being unclothed or naked.
  • Honoring the deceased with animal sacrifices. The animals are often live chickens, calves and/or pigs which are expected to be companions in death for the deceased.
  • Spoken guidance of the deceased back to the place where one’s placenta is buried. 
  • Laying to rest the deceased in a hand sewn coffin
  • Carrying the deceased on the shoulders. To not carry a deceased relative on their shoulders is considered disgraceful. 
  • Burial on a sloping mountain. The Hmong believe that not burying the dead is terrible.

Hmong funeral tradition emancipates the deceased’s spirit. Performing death rituals helps to relieve death anxiety and provides opportunities to feel positive about having completed a folkway or custom on behalf of a loved one.

After death, the Hmong ask their deceased ancestors for guidance as a sign of respect. Benevolent spirits summoned home secure good fortune for family in the coming year through a “Soul calling ceremony”.

Remembrance of the deceased in dreams also helps them deal with their death. The Hmong believe that their fortunes are divined by interpreting their dreams.  

Sadly, some Hmong living in America fear they will not receive a proper funeral ceremony that respects their cultural rituals or that they may not find a good burial space here. For these individuals this can be more important than any other thing in the world, and thus these families opt to send their deceased loved ones back home for the funeral.

How Hmong Beliefs Shape Medical Care


Photo by Bob Tubbs/Wikimedia
Further death denial by the Hmong people has extended to taboos against modern medical practices including avoidance of blood tests, spinal taps, surgery, anesthesia, and if possible, autopsies as well.  Avoidance of these activities distance Hmongs from harm and thus death. 

Hmong families fear leaving loved ones in hospital and their rooms are usually crowded with family members. The hope is that by demonstrating love, the loved one will be spared from death, either in the physical world or symbolically. To be revered by one's family is wealth, and this love for a family member is seen as a barrier against death.
A doctor should never tell a Hmong family that a child is going to die. They do not understand the different tenses such as “you will die”, “you may die”, “you could die”, or “it would be better to die”.  They believe it makes death come closer to the child. It means that the speaker of such words plans to kill the person, because how would he/she know otherwise. Therefore, prognosis is read as a threat and any reminders of a terminal designation could bring relatives of a terminally ill patient to act aggressively. Instead of saying, “when you are dead,” to the Hmong say, “when your children are 120 yrs old", as this conveys the magnitude of the situation while allowing the family to avoid confronting death openly.

  • Do you or your family have beliefs that shape your feelings about death?
  • What funerary rituals do you find comforting or helpful?

K9 Search, Rescue & Recovery Gear for Dogs

Cadaver Dog Gear as shown here includes a Kevlar Jacket for high visibility. This luminescent ballistics canine vest identifies and protects service dogs.

Also shown is the K9 Responder Pack, a waterproof hard shell "turtle pack" comfortably transports first aid materials, instructions, and communication to survivors in disaster zones.

Emergency response is a dangerous job. This high visibility K9 prismatic ballistics wear allows moisture from sweat and heat to escape. Retains reflectivity when wet. Light weight, adjustable loop closures prevent snags.

Rugged hard shell hydration pack affords an expandable zipper waterproof sealed pocket for transporting first aid trauma kit, radio gear and DIY life saving instructions. Reflective straps with adjustable non corrosive metal buckle for custom fit.

Trauma gear included: Burn gel, wound sanitizer, cold compress, trauma pad, bandages, blood stopper, etc.

The benefits to K9 recovery gear is that it: improves response time; enables the safety of first responders; augments intel, retrieval, and delivery capabilities; and it protects the Search & Rescue animal from hazards when put at risk in dangerous situations.

Disaster and Emergency Responders At Risk

When a disaster occurs, such as a tornado, building collapse, landslide or earthquake, it may take as long as an hour or more for first responders to arrive.

Law enforcement investigators must search to locate victims of disasters. Victims are often scattered, buried, or concealed.

An additional delay in response time can occur when there is a need to identify an unknown danger (such as an act of bio-terrorism).

The goal is to ensure human safety when entering treacherous or heavily contaminated areas.

Where Search and Rescue Dogs are Used to Find Victims

Search and rescue dogs can provide assistance when the environment is difficult, dangerous or time consuming. Oftentimes, search and rescue dogs can go and help when and where humans can't.

Search and Rescue dogs may be more easily able to search and locate victims in situations such as:

*Unsafe Buildings
*Rubble Search
*Deep Water
*Heavy Brush
*Steep Hillsides
*CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, Explosives)

Delays in Emergency Response - Preparing for Hazardous Materials

CBRNE Hazardous Materials Decontamination

When an area is deemed too dangerous for human first responders to enter, there is a delay in response.

Each contaminated disaster area must be confirmed first. Then backup is called. Then teams are deployed. Then decontamination stations are set-up. After that, once responders are geared appropriately, then can begin the response efforts. This may occur hours later and the lost time can mean the difference between life and death.

Red Cross Working Dog from 1909
Working Dog in Wartime

K9 teams are trained in a variety of tasks including: Tracking, Trailing, Patrol Utility, Area Search, Search & Rescue Area Search, Building Search, Explosive Detection, Accelerant Detection, and Cadaver Search.

How Search and Rescue Dogs Help in Disasters

K9 First Aid Dog The goal in using emergency rescue dogs, is to take advantage of a their specialized senses, size, and weight to find disaster survivors and remains in rubble.

The work of K9 (canine) Emergency Responders is vital, as they may enter contaminated sites ahead of first responders to accomplish important tasks such as:

*Deliver first aid materials and or instructions to survivors
*Retrieve & deliver objects
*Signal detected materials to handlers
*Take video surveillance or audio recordings
*Comfort survivors
*Recover human remains

All this work can take place before responders are ready and able to enter a disaster area. Most notably, it is done without endangering human responders.

Wedding Rings After a Spouse Dies

My mother, still wearing her wedding rings, overlooking my stepfather's casket at graveside.
This week, photographs of Celine Dion at her husband René Angélil's funeral show her removing their wedding rings from a "ceremonial pillow" atop his casket and then placing both of their wedding bands on her finger.

There are a variety of religious and ethnic customs surrounding funeral services and also with relation to what happens to the couple's wedding rings after death. 

Some of the traditions for the surviving spouse after the funeral/burial include:
  • Wearing your wedding ring on the ring finger of the opposite hand.
  • Wearing your wedding ring on the same hand (sometimes this will be for the remaining years of life, or until the time feels right to remove it, or until one has chosen to remarry.)
  • Wearing your wedding ring on a chain as a necklace pendant.
  • Discontinuing wearing any wedding rings.
When deciding what to do with a spouse's ring who has passed, this too can vary depending on each family and/or culture's traditions.
  • Some feel it's most proper for the spouse to be buried with his/her wedding ring that he/she always wore during life.
  • The ring may be kept and given later to a child or grandchild as a family heirloom.
  • The surviving spouse may decide to wear both rings (his/her own plus, the ring of the spouse who has passed); sometimes wearing both rings on the same finger.
Something to keep in mind is that if your spouse has chosen cremation, jewelry, like wedding rings, will melt down and become destroyed during the cremation process. Thus, you must decide if you wish for the ring to go with your spouse/partner when he/she is cremated.
Of course, most decisions are made by what is most comforting to each individual, and thus customs and traditions will vary from person to person. 

  • Have you any advice or comforting tips to offer a surviving spouse when it comes to wedding rings after the funeral? 
  • If a spouse/family member chose cremation, what did your family decide to do with his/her wedding ring(s)?

Recipe for a Great Eulogy

Many people find writing a eulogy to be a daunting task. An interesting eulogy was found in the book written by Debbie Reynolds, "Unsinkable: A Memoir". 

In the chapter where she discusses her parents end of life wishes and their funerals, she mentions how her daughter, Carrie Fisher, wrote a touching tribute to her grandfather (Debbie's father). As Ms. Reynolds says, "When Daddy died, Carrie wrote a tribute to him that captured so many of his wonderful qualities."


Recipe for Ray (by Carrie Fisher)
(Printed in "Unsinkable: A Memoir" pages 111-112 by Debbie Reynolds)

"take one small stubborn Texan
preferably lean
ad a big busted gal from
that answers to Maxene
fold in some railroad work,
                    a depression
two kids and a move to LA
beat in a bunch of baseball
(and) you've begun your recipe
                    for Ray
take your small stubborn 
and gently remove all his
build him a shop
outsdie any house he's got
and stik a radio there
sift in some well chosen
a kind heart beneath
leathery skin
stir in some peanuts and
a tndency to smoke
sprinkle in dome "Dear Lord"
                    Help us jump in."
[Daddy's version of Grace]
add a dash of the sweetest 
some Palm Springs and a
                    little Ouray
fold in a favorite chair
the funny walk that gets him there
add "and the farmer hauled 
                    another load of 
hay" [Daddy's phrase for B.S.]:
This recipe for Ray
can be cooked up anytime
it simmers in our hearts
it fills us up real fine."

We thought this idea of a "recipe" made the eulogy a simple and fun way to include all of a friend's or loved one's cherished qualities in an easy to read format.

Have you ever been asked to write or have you written a eulogy? 
What helpful tips can you share?

Home Funeral Wake for a Pet

Pet Home Funeral Wake
The Backyard Burial Company aids families in loving tributes to their pets as well as pet funerals, burial and cremation.

When a pet dies, preparing a home funeral vigil can be a healing way to say farewell.

Bringing loved ones together to acknowledge the years of happy memories with your pet, brings us both peace and closure and allows the healing process to begin.

While some families choose to lay out their pet to view, others may prefer to hold the vigil with their pet safely inside his/her casket (as shown above). 

Here are some tips and traditions to help you create a meaningful, spiritual and touching tribute to your beloved pet.

  • Flowers - We use flowers to decorate and beautify the casket, altar and grave space. White flowers are reminiscent of heaven. Yellow flowers symbolize earth. Purple flowers are used for mourning.

  • Photos - Remind us of our beloved pet, happier times and cherished memories. Set up several favorite photos around the wake/altar.

  • Pet Treats and Toys - Arrange your pets favorite toys and treats as part of the altar to remind you what he/she loved best.

  • Pet Blankets and Sweaters - Inside the casket, lay your pet upon his/her favorite blanket. Some families prefer to dress their pet in his/her favorite sweater. Others may tuck the pets clothes or blankets inside the casket with their beloved pet. Your pet's favorite blanket may also be draped atop the casket for a personalized look and cozy feel.

  • Colored-Paper Cut-outs - Draw and cut out shapes that remind you of your pet.
    These paper cut-outs can be taped to the casket or laid out around the altar. Some people use dog bones for dogs or fish shapes for cats. Hearts are also a popular choice. Although any color you prefer may be used, certain colors are associated with healing: green and white.

Candles - Candles give off soft warm light that is healing to the soul. Candles have a historic connection to our world, due to their use in rituals over the years. Candles can be used for meditation and focus and although any color may be used, certain colors are especially associated with promoting healing: magenta, turquoise, red, yellow, green, orange, blue, and lavender.

    • Incense - Burning incense not only fills your home with pleasant smells, but is also used to promote healing. Although any fragrance of incense is part of a meaningful tribute to your pet, certain fragrances are associated with healing properties: amber, carnation, cedar, cinnamon, citron, citronella, cypress, eucalyptus, gardenia, honeysuckle, juniper, lavender, lemon, lotus, myrrh, peppermint, pine, rose, rosemary, sandalwood, and violet.

    Above are just a few examples and ideas to help you create a healing and meaningful funeral or memorial tribute to your pet. We hope these ideas inspire you and your family as you remember your pet together.

    Are you in the Portland area? Please contact The Backyard Burial Company
    We aid families with pet funerals, pet burial and cremation. Let us know how we can help: 503-512-0755.

    Funeral Etiquette - How to Thank Others After a Funeral or Memorial Service

    After a funeral or memorial service, sometimes we are unsure of how to properly thank friends, family and others who may have taken part in the services, sent cards or flowers, brought food or kindly helped in other ways.

    Here are some etiquette tips on how to acknowledge others:
    • Try to send your acknowledgement cards within a week to 10 days from the time of the service when sending thanks for flowers, gifts, and other acts of kindness.

    • If friends and neighbors performed personal services, usually no card is necessary as they are often so close to the bereaved family that they are thanked in person.

    • Letters and cards received from friends require some written words. These notes can be written on the inside of your regular acknowledgment cards. If your loved one was a prominent person or public figure, a regular acknowledgment card without a written note is acceptable.

    • It is not considered necessary to acknowledge visits and calls made by friends to the home or to the funeral home, as usually some member of the family has seen them and/or spoken with them already.

    • Sympathy cards received by your family members do not usually require a written response.

    • When acknowledging other acts of kindness including pall bearers, honorary bearers or friends who may have offered a car for transportation or other services, it is proper to write a personal note. The regular acknowledgment card may be used for these notes.

    Have any funeral etiquette tips you'd like to share? Please share them here.

    Memories of September 11, 2001 by Kim Gordon

    What do you remember about September 11th, 2001 and the days afterward?

    For those of us who lived out of state when the trade towers were hit, our experiences were vastly different. We have our memories that were mostly shaped by television coverage and the reactions within our own communities.

    But Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, lived in New York City at the time and shares a little about what that time was like in her recent memoir, "Girl in a Band".

    "It was a surreal, terrifying day. People....were wandering around... in a daze."

    "The next morning...the streets were empty. I got very emotional thinking about New York as I looked down to where the towers once were and I saw a big nothing. It felt like the end."

     "Every morning I got up early and turned on CNN just to make sure nothing else had happened, and I woke up in the middle of the night, too. This is still my sleep pattern."

    "Later I found out that most of the power downtown in the financial district ran directly underneath Murray Street....Murray Street itself had chain-link fencing on both sides of the sidewalk and for months it was one big gaping hole, with the sidewalks and pavement regularly wetted down to dissolve the dust still permeating the air. 'Is this to wash away the dust of all the people killed in the towers?' I kept thinking."

    It's hard to imagine being so close to the events that changed our world that tragic day.  

    Please share: 
    What do you remember about September 11th and the days afterwards? 
    What happened in your community after September 11th?
    How did your friends and family deal with and handle the tragedy?

    VM Book Club Review: Sum It Up by Pat Summitt

    In her book "Sum It Up", Pat Summitt gives an open and honest look at her early onset Alzheimer's, while intermittently discussing her career memories, both good and bad, leading up to and during her coaching of the "Lady Vols".

    Early in the book, she describes how "a memoir is not a documentary. We think we keep an accurate record of ourselves in the bean-counting tablets of our minds,but we don't. None of us sees or remembers everything about one's life; memories are unreliable - they smudge and fade, like disappearing footprints in the sand. We're too busy standing in the middle of it to remember everything perfectly." It's a good reminder to all of us, that even without dementia, our memory is not "perfect".

    She describes life with Alzheimer's like footprints in the sand being "washed away by the surf". Her earlier memory lapses had her asking "people to remind me of the same things over and over". She would have to ask "three times in the space of an hour, 'What time is my meeting again?'" and still be late. Her close friends noticed she "would forget the most important conversations". Although she said she typically lost car keys and her cell phone, she now "lost them three times a day".

    At first she thought her memory loss was caused by "a reaction to medication" since she was on a "handful of prescriptions for various ailments." She also found it difficult to get out of bed in the morning, because "in bed there were no challenges. No worrisome situations that required a decision. No conversations in which I feared I might make a telltale slip-up." This led her to become "increasingly hesitant and withdrawn, to the point that" she began avoiding meeting with "players one-on-one."

    Alzheimer's began to affect her coaching as well. "I grew confused in the heat of a game" and there were "strange empty moments when I couldn't' call up the right term." After spending four decades teaching herself to "see ten players at once, the whole ninety-four feet of hardwood and all the movement on it" she was starting to see "an indistinguishable blur, flashes and bursts."

    She describes her "short-term factual memory" like "water", "events are a brief disturbance on the surface and then it closes back up again, as if nothing ever touched it." She notes however that her long-term memory "remains strong", which she likens to the fact that the events were recorded "when my mind was unaffected". She feels that her emotional memory is intact, "perhaps because feelings are recorded and stored in a different place than facts." 
    Her doctor described Alzheimer's as "hugely unpredictable". In some people it moved quickly but others were "able to stay active and engaged for many years." Pat decided to fight and stay engaged in coaching as long as possible. "When you learn to keep fighting in the face of potential failure, it gives you a larger skill set to do what you want to do in life. It gives you vision."

    When she decided to step aside as head coach to become "head coach emeritus", she went public with her Alzheimer's diagnosis. Her hope was that the "audience might see the disease in a new light: as something that could be managed, lived with in a purposeful way. The great stigma of it was in thinking it robbed us of all dignity and value. Sometimes, I thought we strip people of their capacities faster than the disease itself does."

    As Pat describes it, "People with mild to moderate stages of dementia have far more abilities than incapacities...just because certain circuits of memory or swiftness of synapses may fail, thought and awareness and consciousness do not."

    Also interesting were Pat's descriptions of her career as head coach, her coaching style and relationships with the players. She addressed several tips and great advice for building and maintaining hardworking, award-winning teams. 

    Do you know someone with early onset Alzheimer's? What has it taught you?
    If you were to be diagnosed with early onset dementia, would you continue working? Why/why not?