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?