I imagine the Vietnamese have worked the problem through, but I have trouble keeping up. On the one hand, ancestor worship (a la Confucius) plays a central role in the household economy. On the other hand, too much reverence for too many generations may intrude on an ancestor’s (Buddhist) capacity to be happily reincarnated in another family that, over the ages, will produce new and different ancestral lines.
A portion of this visit to Vietnam has featured images of how life and death intersect. Family homes are dominated by altars above which ancient daguerreotypes of grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents stare down on this generation’s scion, often herself a grandparent of seventy or eighty years. We try to identify the relative by virtue of her costume. We invariably err by a generation or two.
We visit graveyards where the monuments bear no confident relation to the wealth of the family. It is essential that the dead be well housed, that a protective wall prevent an errant spirit from approaching too directly, that vivid colors and symbolic creatures keep good company with the dead, that ghost money be burnt to cover the costs of a lively afterlife. Death is, therefore, expensive. Around one graveyard we visited, it seemed that competition among neighbors revolved around the kind of currency used: one grave was adorned with 500,000 Vietnamese Dong notes; the adjoining grave enjoyed black and white USD 100 dollar bills complete with Ben Franklin’s portrait. (A one hundred dollar bill is worth 2, 200, 000 dong.)
In a military cemetery, the young soldiers are memorialized with stiff, formal photographs embedded in the peach-colored stone. The monument becomes a small shrine: joss sticks spread incense over the orange and pomelo slices; cigarettes impaled on the incense burn down to their filters. Occasional anomalies appear—the gold star mothers who contributed too many sons to the war effort. The woman pictured below lost, someone suggested, ten sons and her brother.
In Hue, the Tet Offensive in 1968 struck with especial force. Some 80,000 civilians perished within the the first month of the new year. Thus, spirit houses are particularly numerous. These small shrines reveal acts of devotion and remembrance. In some apartment blocks with balconies, the spirit houses appear on every floor. Perhaps there are fewer in the countryside, but they do seem to accumulate in one’s consciousness and intend to remain there.
The most peculiar dwelling for the departed is on display in Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology. It looks antique but in fact was built in 1998 by the Jarai Arap men of Gia Lai province. The house is perhaps fifteen feet by eight feet. It is a lodge for the dead, but the carvings surrounding the house seem to be an advertisement for a brothel. Ah, love and death. Ah, the little death.
Still, it would appear, we mourn, we go on living, we mourn, we go on living, round and round the perimeter of the house of the dead.
What a life.