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Vietnamese culture of ancestor veneration and worship - A travel note
During my recent visit to Vietnam, colourful temple-like cemeteries and graves attracted my attention.

I was told that in Vietnam, the tradition of ancestor worship is common; therefore, cemeteries are created to have temple architecture. The belief is that the soul lives on after death and becomes the protector of its descendants. Many family events are held at cemeteries with the belief that the spirits of the ancestors are participating in them.

For example, to intervene for success in business or grant health on behalf of the sick, sacrifices and prayers are offered to the ancestor spirits. The ancestors are informed on occasions of family joy or sorrow, such as weddings, success in examination, gain of wealth or deaths in the family, told the guide who picked the sentences in English from Wikipedia posts.

They tell that three major religious festivals are celebrated to remember the dead. The first is the Holiday of the Dead (Thanh Minh) which falls in the fifth day of the third moon. On this day, people pay solemn visits to graves of deceased relatives and make offerings of food, flowers, joss sticks and votive papers.

The second is the Summer Solstice Day (Doan Ngu), which is observed on the fifth day of the fifth moon. On this day, offerings are made to spirits, ghosts and the God of Death's ward off epidemics. Human effigies are burned to appease God of Death and grant peace to departed souls.

The third festival is the Wandering Souls Day (Trung Nguyen) which falls on the fifteenth day of the seventh moon. This is the second largest Vietnamese festival of the year. Offerings of food and gifts are made in homes and pagodas for the wandering souls of the forgotten dead.

At some places, according to the people who manage the cemetery, tombs in this burial-ground do not have tombstones because all people in Long Son commune are followers of Tran religion which believes that  dead people are of the same rank and equal. Therefore, families of the dead have to remember the position of their relatives' tombs or they have to use own sign to differentiate the tomb from others.

Although most Vietnamese people would say that they are Buddhists, but, in fact, their religion appears to also be a fusion of Chinese beliefs, Confucianism, Taoism, ancestor worship and animism.

One tradition central to Vietnamese life and death precepts is geomancy or feng shui. Therefore, the position of the grave is very important for family fortunes.

The last procession that carries the deceased from the family home to the grave is supposed to be beginning of the transition from a living family member to an ancestor.

It is believed that ancestors continue to help and protect the family. Often, their graves are usually situated close to the family home, either in a cemetery at the bottom of the garden, in a rice paddy field.

The family will spend a reasonable proportion of their income on the burial, which begins with the purchase of an elaborate wooden coffin.  During viewings, the mouth of the dead body may be propped open to allow visitors to drop in grains of rice or gold coins into it.

Family members wash the body with heavily scented lotions and dress it in the best clothes. The body is then wedged in the coffin with reed branches, paper rolls and other objects to keep it in place as it decomposes.

The funeral ceremony may include hired musicians, variety of food and Buddhist monks carrying in hammocks, if the family is well off.

The period of mourning can be long, after which the body is exhumed, the bones washed and reburied in a smaller casket. Candles are lit and daily offerings of food are made on the altar for the dead person's soul.

Many houses also have colourful spirit houses which look more like biggish bird tables where offerings are placed and incense sticks or candles are lit to keep bad spirits at bay.

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