A Laotian Funeral

Understanding a tradition is very important in photographing a funeral service as most cultures are different.  I recall we hired an American photographer to photograph my mom’s funeral, Bo explained to her what she could and couldn’t do, and her not understanding the tradition she didn’t capture any decent picture.  I was upset, but not much we could do and when a dear friend of our family passed away I wanted to photograph her funeral for her family.

Canon T2i, EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, Aperture Priority, f/4, 1/50sec, ISO 1600, focal length 40mm, exposure bias 0step, evaluative metering

The services were held on several days, and I was able to attend the Friday, Saturday and Sunday services.

Canon T2i, EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, Aperture Priority, f/4, 1/80sec, ISO 3200, focal length 40mm, exposure bias -0.7step, evaluative metering

The candle tears from the ceremony were read and translated into animal signs by many.

Canon T2i, EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, Aperture Priority, f/5.6, 1/60sec, ISO 3200, focal length 36mm, exposure bias -0.7step, evaluative metering

And in this case it’s a rooster. One of the ladies asked me if I know how to read, I told her no and that I was just taking a picture.  She looked at the image on my camera LCD screen and saw a bird of feather with long beaks. If you are Laotian then you know that this gets translated into a lottery number, she never did tell me the rooster number.

Canon T2i, EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, Aperture Priority, f/5.6, 1/20sec, ISO 3200, focal length 33mm, exposure bias -0.7step, evaluative metering

In a traditional Laotian funeral service, there’s very specific detail as to how a body is being marched to the cemetery, or the crematory site. For some, you might remember or have heard this preach at a funeral service that ‘4 Kone Homh (4 people carry), 3 Kone Haih (3 people parade), 1 Kone Nung Krah (one person sitting on the mantle), and 2 Kone Nom Thung (2 people lead the way). Of course, you don’t see this in most Laotian ‘traditional’ funeral services, but what we’ve common seen were the monks leading (seems the more, the better), followed by novice monks (same deal here, the more, the merry), white mai chee (white nuns), the casket, then followed by people (large crowd shows that a person was well respected by the Lao community.) There’s no specific in detail of 4, 3, 1, 2, and most people might not know what I’m talking about; but some might understand the basic terminology because of Lao wordings, but the true meaning of them, I think not.

Canon T2i, EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, Aperture Priority, f/5.6, 1/400sec, ISO 100, focal length 30mm, exposure bias 0step, evaluative metering

After hearing the explanation from Ajarn Somsak at my mom’s funeral service and hearing it again at this service, it makes perfect sense to me. The term 4 Kone Homh, why 4 people have to carry the casket, simple reason, the 4 elements that made up a person, which are earth, water, wind, and fire. Why 3 Kone Haih, parade of 3 people behind the casket, symbolizes the basic reality of life, no matter who you are, rich or poor, we can’t escape the reality of ‘impermanent, suffering, non-self.’ 1 Kone Nung Krah, would appear to be the body in the casket, but it’s actually the spirit, each only has 1, which immediately leaves our bodies after we die. Lastly, why 2 Kone Nom Thung, the casket should only be lead by 2 people, which represents Borb (sin) and Boun (karma, or good deed), where you go from here is led by your Borb and Boun. RIP Euay.

Canon T2i, EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens, Aperture Priority, f/4, 1/1000sec, ISO 200, focal length 23mm, exposure bias -0step, evaluative metering

I took over 900 photos, made prints and cds as a gift to the family and my sisters were kind enough to help pay for the prints.


  1. Hi Nye,
    My condolences to the family. It was very kind of you to be the photographer for the funeral.

    I know Lao funerals can be complicated and last for days. But it’s nice to know the community cares.

    • Cambree, it’s so nice to see Lao people coming together to help and sadly this is the only time that you get to see long lost relatives and friends.

  2. Nye, sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. Taking photos at the funeral can be a sensitive matter. Personally, I do not like to capture the sad moments.

    I’m sure the family will appreciated your hard work and time you put into it.

    • seeharhed, you just have to be careful of what you take because certain image can be painful to look at. I was able to capture all events and finally finished compiling the video. Her husband was happy when I gave him a set of photos, I’m sure it’s not something that he would look at very often.

    • Hi Scott, it’s a very sensitive matter in many cultures, Lao and Thai take pictures at funeral since this is like a family reunion and many take group photos before parting. I’ve not seen in the American culture also.

  3. It’s an amazing gift to turn a bad memory into something you can grow from and help others with. You would have never been as sensitive to your friend’s needs if you hadn’t have had the regret over your own Mother’s funeral pictures. You are such a good person Nye to offer to do for her what wasn’t done for you.

    • Geni, photography is a great gift, I read in our local paper last year for people with cameras to volunteer their time at the nursing home but sadly I didn’t have the time. We were fortunate to have gotten some photos from relatives but the quality wasn’t that great. Photography at a funeral is very stressful and sad at the same time, I learned a great deal from this event.

Comments are closed.