Honoring our ancestors

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In the Buddhist religion one honors their ancestors on the anniversary of their death by celebrating their life and praying for an auspicious afterlife. It is a tradition filled with ceremony and ancient customs.

As a coincidence our trip to Vietnam coincides with the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. My grandmother was buried in my grandfather’s hometown, which is a small country village about an hour outside of Nam Dinh. My grandfather, who passed some ten years after she did, is buried alongside her. We took the opportunity to honor them both on this day.

For the Viet people family is everything. And respect and honor for your elders is the foundation of family. My grandfather was the eldest son and therefore holds a position of special prominence for the entire family.

On this day we met up with all of our country cousins whose land houses the family’s graveyard and memorial temples.

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My grandfather’s third youngest brother and his wife. He’s 89 and she’s 90. They were married by arrangement at 10 and 11, but didn’t actually live together until in their late teens. The oldest living brother is 99 and we visited him in Nam Dinh before coming out to the country. Although he’s mentally sharp he was too tired physically to make the drive out to the country.

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My mother (on left) and her cousin. Believe it or not, they’re exactly the same age (72) born only a day apart. My mother was the city kid and her cousin the country kid. My grandmother’s family were professionals from the city—full of doctors, lawyers and judges. My grandfather’s family were farmers from the country. Hoping to give their children the best of both worlds they raised their kids in the city and sent them to country for all of their vacations and holidays.

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My mom’s cousin and his wife.

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We started the day at the family’s temple right behind the house. Offerings of food, drinks, money and flowers are amassed on the alter. These offerings are for our ancestors to have in their afterlife. We want to make sure that they are taken care of and well provided for.

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We light some incense …

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… and then we pray always ending with three deep bows.

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Then we walked to the memorial shrine made especially to honor my grandparents. It’s located in the middle of rice fields.

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We made offerings …

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… and we prayed again.

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Afterward we burned paper money to send it to my grandparents in their afterlife.

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Then we walked farther into the farm fields to where the family cemetery is located.

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Our family cemetery is surrounded by water.

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You have to walk a tiny ledge to get out there.

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First we clean the grave stones.

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Make offerings of fruit and flowers.

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Burn incense for all of the relatives buried there.

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Pray for them and culminate by burning money for them to have in their afterlife.

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We finally go back to the house and the family alter where we started this whole process. We start there and end there. To finalize the entire process we do a big burning of money, clothes (shirts, tanks and pants), even shoes and a hat for my grandmother. These are all made of paper and sold especially for the purpose of burning for the dead.

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Along with the traditional ceremonial Chinese money we burned fake one hundred dollar bills because my grandparents spent many years in the U.S.. I thought this was pretty funny.

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There’s my mother’s cousin holding a picture of my grandfather. They hang his picture in a place of honor in their home. Another copy is placed permanently at the family alter. Finally we were able to sit down to eat and celebrate our family with a special meal.

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Before we began our meal everyone poured a little beer into their rice bowl (we’re in the country and things are a wee primitive here—who needs a glass when a bowl will do?) and they toast each other, expressing their love and appreciation for one another. Then we dish up extra special foods. In this case it was an all protein meal (considered very expensive) of chicken, fish, pork and beef. All of the elders share stories about fellow family members and there’s quite a lot of laughter, teasing and affection passed around.

It was an incredibly special day.

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(Minh and Joe: I know you wished you could have been there. I hope these photos make you feel that you have. We certainly missed you and all of the elders send their best wishes to you and your families.)

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