Laotian Funeral Service

It is not easy to photograph a Laotian funeral service especially if you don’t understand the custom.  The gathering at the family’s home could be as long as 1 week or longer, and in Portou Ny’s case I was able to attend the last day of the gathering only since I had to work and he lived 1 hour from us.  The day of the funeral was long, it was an all day event. We gathered at the house for the morning service, the icy road condition made traveling difficult for all of us. It was treacherous and we saw several vehicles stranded along the highway.

Portou Ny’s two sons and 3 young relatives became novice monks to honor and lead him to his afterlife. Bo asked me to photograph the image below from this angle, obvious that they were sitting from the oldest to youngest just by showing their fashion statement of their boxer shorts and underpants.

It’s a custom for us to wear black or dark color clothing to a funeral service. The young men below were taking vows to become novice monks.

The senior monk was helping the new novice monk dressed.

The ceremony of pledging their vows to become novice monks, there were many rules that they had to follow.

Portou Ny must be very proud that both his sons became novice monks, and it was their final duty to their father as sons.

His daughters and grandchildren became white nuns.

The service at home included offering meal to the monks and making merit to the deceased by communicating via the pouring water ceremony.

Unlike the American funeral service we do photograph and video the event, and I informed the lady at the funeral service first of what I was doing. I took many photos, but will not be posting any graphic photo of the deceased since it’s not appropriate for this blog post.

Portou Ny’s received many flowers at his service.

We sent this spray below, and it was difficult finding a florist that would deliver since the weather condition  was so bad on Friday and Saturday. I found one that would and they did an excellent job.

Pouring water merit making ceremony.

Saying our final farewell by putting dork Janh, the funeral flowers in the casket.

The monks, novice monks and white nuns led the casket to the crematory place.

I wrote this part before in my previous funeral post, 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.)

Of course the above numbers of 4, 3, 2, and 1 have meanings. This was explained by Ajarn Somsak at my mom’s funeral service. 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.

Portou Ny’s casket was cremated with his body, it’s believed that it’s his house in his afterlife.

We stood outside afterward, one of his sons was holding his photo.

If this was back home, the crematory would be at the Buddhist temple or out in the open at the cemetery. Some would toss an egg into the air, and where it landed and break would be a place that they would build the fire to cremate the body. Many funeral homes in the US have a crematory place and this building has a huge pipe that we could see the smoke.  Some would look to see which direction it’s heading, whether he is making his way back home.

We washed our hands before leaving the funeral home. This is a modern version of when back in the olden days people would take a bath/shower once they get home from a funeral service. The purpose was to clean oneself since you might have touched the deceased and the body houses germs and diseases.

We returned back home for another service, this time the novice monks returned their ropes and became commoners. At the end of the service the senior monks gave us blessing water.

I was glad that the photos came out good, and gave digital copies to the family. If you read up to this part, thank you for taking interest in our tradition.

19 thoughts on “Laotian Funeral Service

  1. Very interesting, Nye. Fine photos and comments.
    I visited Vietnam some years ago, and stayed in a hotel, where a man in the opposite house was dead and the funeral ceremony lasted many days – with songs and music.
    It was difficult to sleep there!

    • Truels, every culture celebrates slightly different. I recalled when I was little seeing so many people mourning for a man that I didn’t know he had so many family members, and came to find out later that those were professional mourners and they didn’t even know him.

      Vietnam is an interesting country, I would love to visit one day.

  2. Thank you Ginger, for explaining and for showing your photos. To me it seems like a very respectful and meaningful way to say goodbye. It gives the family time to stay together, while following the traditional rites, time to get used to a new situation without the deceased. For how long will the sons be monks, – just these days?
    Your flowers were beautiful.

    • Hi Giiid, they became monks just for that day, some that have more time would remain as monks for several days. I’m glad I was able to capture the event for them and hope that they will find closure.

  3. I have to agree with you, it is not easy to photograph Laotian funerals. Although, last year I was asked to be a photographer at my uncle funeral. All the pictures are taken with your new Mark3?

    • seeharhed, it’s hard to judge the difference between embarrassing someone or just trying to capture the event sometimes. All photos were taken with my new Mark5diii, this is a good test run of the camera for me. I will be doing a wedding in June and might need to invest in a flash.

  4. Hello
    Let me start out by saying how much i like your work. The pictures were so accurate. I love the details and the meaning behind them. My aunt recently pass away and i was at a lost. Im lao but ive been here almost all my life and certain rituals are beyond my realm. I havent really pay attention to all tje details that come with the ceremony. Is there a site that i can go to or do you write any books on it? Im curious and would like to know the meaning behind and the rituals.

  5. Nye, can you tell me what would be a proper acknowledgement to a Laotian Family on the tragic loss of their 20 yr old grandson, a young man, who died in an accident? He has been cremated and they’ve already had his funeral, but my family would like to send them something. Are flowers appropriate? Or is there something else they would appreciate more?
    thanks,
    M

    • Hi M, sorry to hear about his loss. Since they already had the funeral, flowers or plants with a sympathy card will be appropriated for this occasion. As for me, I normally send money to help the family but might not be appropriated in your situation since everything is already done, and probably paid for.

  6. Very well done! I learned a lot from this explanation of the Buddhist funeral ceremony. I have attended many Buddhist funerals and now realize how much I had not understood. Thank you for increasing my understanding and appreciation of the rich Buddhist religion.

  7. Thank you so very much for posting such a beautiful explanation of the Lao funeral service. I will be attending Lao service, and reading your post was a tremendous help.

    Again, Thank you.

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