• Forty-Nine Days of Mourning: On Culture and Ritual at My Father’s Funeral

    E.M. Tran Considers Disappearance and Preservation in Grief and Writing

    The funeral home director’s office was cramped, perhaps because I, my sister, Rosie, my husband, her husband, my mother, my father’s assistant, and a man wearing a mechanic’s jumpsuit and who was in some way associated with the Buddhist temple, were more people than the office was used to hosting at one time. Things were not helped by the size of the director’s desk, a handsome executive which monopolized most of the room. It was my sister’s birthday, which I forgot about until after our visit to the funeral home. Now, every year on her birthday, I will be reminded that my father died.

    The funeral director was a plump white man who spoke in low tones and delivered the uncomfortable fact of financial burden that comes with death simultaneously with tact and like a car salesman, the figures added onto the bill as a natural consequence of circumstance rather than as add-ons one could choose to forego. We were lucky—my father had the foresight to put money away expressly for his funeral arrangements, otherwise we would’ve been on the hook for the thousands it costs to host a funeral service.

    At the end of the meeting, the Buddhist mechanic jumped to his feet and ushered us into a shockingly cavernous, warehouse-like space containing dozens of coffins. He swept his hand outward, as if he were presenting us an empty Disneyland park for the day, and said “Pick any coffin you like!” I wasn’t sure who this man was but had accepted him as a part of the process.

    Somehow, he was our connection to the temple conducting the Buddhist funeral ceremony, but also the unofficial Vietnamese liaison for the American funeral home. To be honest, I initially thought he might be one of the monks—thinking, about his mechanic’s jumpsuit, monks need to make a living, too—but we never really saw him again. Growing up, my parents were never in the habit of explaining the whos and whys, and so, as a general starting disposition, I approach most conditions as permanent realities with which I have to align myself.

    He walked us from coffin to coffin, taking us to the most expensive ones and lauding their features. This one’s made of mahogany! This one is lined in quilted silk! This one looks just like a Cadillac! My father’s assistant, Bich, stood behind him as supporting cast. My father had published a popular local Vietnamese newspaper, and she had taken on the reins as his health declined. She had overstepped multiple times in the management of his healthcare and passing, and yet, she had been a support system for our father when his three daughters and son lived too far away to help.

    At the end of the guided coffin walk-through was a glass case full of urns. “Do you like this one? This one’s nice,” Bich and the Buddhist mechanic said, pointing to a black urn with an intricate, metallic gold pattern. Rosie and I both preferred an emerald green urn, which we had to convince them of. Our father loved the color green, but they kept asking us if we were sure that was the one we wanted. “Were they making commission on the black urn, or something?” my sister later said.


    On the day of the funeral, we were told to arrive by nine in the morning. We didn’t receive much information, other than that the Buddhist mechanic had arranged everything with the monks, and all we had to do was show up. It was strange to drive to the funeral home for an event that I knew was supposed to be a big deal. The death of a father, and all that. But what I’d realized throughout much of this horrible time was that the mundane qualities of life continue even in the wake of, perhaps in tandem with, horrible devastation.

    I was in the room when my father died, and the moment of his death was as dramatic as one might imagine. And then, afterwards, we sat around his corpse, barely aware that the television was on, waiting patiently as the bureaucracy of American healthcare attempted to catch up. I felt the same, jarring dissonance as we drove ourselves to the funeral home, no fancy black car service, just us in our Toyota Venza, trying to make it on time to another appointment.

    The funeral service was in the back parlor, where my father’s open coffin invited onlookers. “They put too much makeup on him,” my brother said. A miniature soundbox placed near the body’s head played a moaning chant on loop. In front of his coffin were two tables: one draped in yellow holding a large illustration of Buddha, and the other in white, holding a photo of my father. There were baskets of fruit, arrangements of fake flowers, and sticks of burning incense surrounding both picture frames.

    The Buddhist monks were bald and draped in robes the same shade of golden yellow of the tablecloth. They had burgundy red sashes slung across their chests. Dozens of elaborate funeral wreaths propped up on easels lined the wall, some bearing a white pageant ribbon with the name of the sender. The service was poorly attended at this point, it being morning on a workday, the room populated only by my siblings and I, our spouses, my mother, Bich and her husband Lenny (whose Vietnamese birth name we didn’t know, but who we always referred to by first and last, Lenny Dang), and my sister’s kids.

    The monk who seemed in charge told us to silence our phones, taking the tone of someone who was reprimanding us, as if we’d already transgressed. We tied strips of white cloth around our foreheads. We were instructed to kneel on the ground. The monks began to sing, ringing, clear sounds, the words nearly unintelligible—were they singing in Vietnamese? In Tibetan?—each monk layering in a different harmony, sometimes their pitch reaching so high, so loud, the sound cut through my body like vibrating bass.

    A cell phone began to ring, its volume rising above the chanting, and the monk who’d scolded us reached deep into the folds of his orange robes to silence his cell phone without breaking rhythm. Buddhist nuns stood behind the monks, holding prayer beads, hitting gongs, dinging bells, and running wooden rods around the rims of copper singing bowls. They told us to stand up, to kneel, stand up, kneel, bow three times, stand up, bow four times, stand up, kneel, bow twice. We had to do this in front of one table, and then the other, switching back and forth at the behest of the monks.

    They motioned discreetly to us while singing, as if we should pretend we knew the whole ritual, pretend we knew exactly where to bow and how many times. I knew I didn’t know what I was doing, the monks knew I didn’t know what I was doing, and so, who was this performance for? I felt my failure to culture more starkly than ever, the rift of displacement and diaspora. I went through the motions, each step fed to me in the second I was supposed to do it, doing it clumsily and without any context. What did the number of bows signify? How did each action honor the dead?

    As we rose and knelt in synchronicity, Bich and Lenny Dang ran around the room with their cell phones, recording everything. “Excuse me,” Lenny Dang said, pushing my husband aside as he was bowing so he could get a better angle. The ceremony took hours, what felt like the entire day. My feet were asleep from kneeling for so long. We left the funeral home and were supposed to come back the next morning to complete the ritual.

    Traditionally, families are supposed to stay up all night, praying until sunrise. In the past, when the bodies were prepared for the afterlife in the home, the family would guard the body at night against evil spirits trying to steal their loved one away. I did not pray until sunrise and I did not guard his body. I went to bed that night, exhausted, thinking of my father in that mid-priced coffin. Alone in the closed and empty funeral home, that tiny speaker near his head playing its staticky chanting all night.

    The next day, my siblings and I watched somberly, Bich and Lenny Dang circling the hearse with their iPhones, as his coffin was carried out for transport to the crematorium. The crematorium was nestled in an iconic New Orleans cemetery, a city famous for them. Driving into the downtown, the highway cuts through a series of cemeteries, which stretches, perhaps deceptively to the untrained eye, as far as one can see as they speed past on the interstate.

    Full of elaborate above-ground tombs and oven vaults, they were built for the centuries-old hazards of living in a below sea-level place, where burying the dead couldn’t happen when the ground was full of water. Manicured lawns, elaborate monuments, fern covered brick, and beautifully crafted ironwork define a space that has long characterized New Orleans in the national imagination. Old New Orleans families have buried their kin here for generations, this space for the dead just another reflection of the class divisions of the living. As we walked through one such cemetery to the crematorium, I felt so far away from the funeral home in its overdeveloped suburb, full of Best Buys and dingy Asian restaurants and gray concrete.

    I went through the motions, each step fed to me in the second I was supposed to do it, doing it clumsily and without any context. What did the number of bows signify? How did each action honor the dead?

    We stood inside a mausoleum, the walls lined from floor to ceiling with marble crypts. At the end of the mausoleum was the door to the crematorium, the giant oven into which we’d roll our father’s coffin to burn until it was a pile of ash. In his coffin we had packed him a duffle bag of clothes, his glasses, and the books he’d written—things to take with him into the next life.

    On the cold, hard floor of the mausoleum, we knelt again, bowing when told to do so, before the coffin was pushed over the threshold of the crematorium door. We stood to watch it all, my eldest brother tasked with pressing the button to turn the oven on, and my eldest sister told to turn the dial to increase the heat. Bich pushed me aside so she could record this. “For the family in Vietnam,” she said, although, as a live spectator myself, I had to wonder who would want to watch this. At the end, we were left standing awkwardly. The monks said “Ok, bye!” hurrying out of the room so fast that I could imagine cartoon dust being kicked up behind them.


    We ended the this long two-day ritual at the temple, praying and bowing more, this time to a gigantic, neon Buddha that wouldn’t have been out of place in Las Vegas, and offering food to my father’s photo on the altar. After all my siblings had left, my husband and I were the only of my dad’s children left in New Orleans. We came every Sunday for 49 days to the Buddhist temple, praying and bowing to the altar with my dad’s photo.

    When my father’s urn finally arrived at the temple, it was black and gold, the one we didn’t want. We noticed most of the urns in the room were the same style. We offered my dad different meals, hot tea, and dessert. The monks always remembered us because my husband was the only white person who came to do this. Other families who were on the same prayer schedule for a deceased loved one became recognizable faces.

    I still didn’t understand what the monks said, but the tenor of their chants, the crescendos and dips, became a pattern, and I began to understand when I was supposed to stand, when I should bow four times and when I should go up to offer tea or distribute food. I developed my own relationship with the ritual, and each Sunday, I could have a private moment with my father.

    Giving this feeling form felt urgent. What was writing, what were books, if not records of culture?

    During the funeral, I’d felt my separation from culture so intensely. I hadn’t known the breadth of all the things I didn’t know. I thought, and I still think, how will this ritual, which I am performing so poorly and blindly for my father, ever survive me? Despite how obnoxious and even comedic I’d found Bich and Lenny Dang’s amateur moviemaking, I understood the impulse to document it, to have some record that it existed.

    There is a near future in which all of it will be forgotten. It was already in the process of being forgotten. I will never be able to remember this cultural act the way it was intended because I never knew what it was supposed to be like in the first place. But, I realized I didn’t have to preserve it, and in fact, wasn’t qualified to do so. I only had to preserve the way I felt, the way the ritual itself was disintegrating. The transition, the act of disappearance, was as important to document because it represented displacement itself. My separation from this tradition could only happen because of my family’s separation from its homeland.

    Like Bich and Lenny Dang recording it all on their phones, I wrote a chapter in my novel, which I had been in the midst of writing. It is about a funeral, my attempt to grasp onto the feeling of instability, the shame, the uncertainty. Giving this feeling form felt urgent. What was writing, what were books, if not records of culture? My father knew this better than anyone, having scoured Vietnam for banned books that had escaped the mass book burnings the Communists conducted after winning the war. He knew they recorded something vital that those in power wanted to erase, wanted to disappear, wanted to make obsolete.

    On a bookshelf I inherited from my father, I display those books he rescued from Vietnam. There is a framed black and white photo of him; he leans against medical machines, grinning easily, at the hospital where he worked as a Biomedical Engineer. On the shelf above him, a photo of my husband’s late father, Darryl. They’re both young, immortalized on this bookshelf as the youthful men many remembered them.

    Each week, my husband makes them coffee—instant, freeze-dried coffee with some spoonfuls of non-dairy powdered creamer. Exactly the way my father drank it in life. Darryl gets a Sun Records mug, because he was a music buff, and my dad gets a Café du Monde mug, the one I bought him when we went to the beignet place after dinner one night. Sometimes we’ll leave food if we think our fathers would’ve liked to eat it: fried chicken, Thanksgiving dinner, rice, cookies, a Mounds bar, a bottle of Diet Coke.

    We’ll light incense and tell them we’re doing well, that we miss them terribly. I pray they’re reading good books, listening to music, and having a better time, ten times better than they would on earth. Whether or not this ritual makes any difference to them is almost irrelevant. Whether or not we’re doing it right also feels unimportant. Maybe my father will starve in the afterlife without the plate of Popeye’s I leave him, or maybe it’s all make-believe. It doesn’t matter. I’m doing it because it helps me remember.


    Daughters of the New Year by E.M. Tran is available now via Hanover Square Press. 

    E.M. Tran
    E.M. Tran is a Vietnamese American writer from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her stories, essays and reviews can be found in such places as Joyland magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Thrillist and Harvard Review Online. Her essay for Prairie Schooner won their Summer Nonfiction Prize, a Glenna Luschei Award and was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2018. She completed her MFA at the University of Mississippi and a PhD in creative writing at Ohio University. Daughters of the New Year is her first novel.

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