Bernie’s Stories: Death Days – Past and Present.

Mike and I were staying at The Belgrave Arms Hotel in Helmsdale, on our way back from our holiday in Kilmartin Glen.  The Belgrave Arms is owned by Wendy and Craig.  We were talking with Wendy, who told us that they had recently returned from their holiday, in Vietnam!  This was interesting enough in itself, as, to me, the word ‘Vietnam’ still conjures up war, helicopters, ‘Apocalypse Now’, and that terrible image of the little girl – running from something that she couldn’t possibly run away from.

Wendy tells us that the country is very much recovering, and that, though there isn’t much conspicuous wealth about, the people are working with what they have and building on what they have and there is a general air of optimism.

Flowers of Vietnam

Flowers in Vietnam (McKay Savage from London, UK)

Wendy and Craig hadn’t gone on a 5-star, glitzy kind of holiday – they were there in a way which meant that they had contact with the people and their way of life.  They had a young man as their guide who told them something of the traditions still followed by his family.  He was working hard to earn enough to make his father’s ‘second house’.

His father is now elderly, and the Vietnamese people accept and embrace death as very much a part of life.  When parents are nearing death, their sons are expected to build them a ‘second house’.  This is not what we would think of as a house – more of a shrine – but they refer to them as ‘second houses’.

When a person dies, they are placed in a box and left for some time to rot away!  When they are well and truly decomposed, the family gather together and wash the bones thoroughly – they must be absolutely pristine.  The family then have a ‘Day of Death’ when they place the bones in the ‘second house’.  The spirit is then left in peace to move on to their next life.  On the Death Day, the ceremonies include burning their most valued possessions, so that they, too, can accompany the person to the new life.

This used to include burning their money – but it has now changed –  the family buy pretend money to burn instead!

Wendy thinks that the way of life which she and Craig got an insight into, will possibly have gone in 20/30 years time, as ways are starting to change already – for example, burning ‘pretend’ money.  Can you imagine someone from the Neolithic or Bronze Age, breaking a ‘pretend’, ceramic, mace-head, or snapping a ‘pretend’ wooden, sword?
The ‘second houses’ are placed among the fields belonging to the family – marking their land.

I don’t need to draw the parallels with the death rituals of many ancient civilizations.  But – this is a living culture, which is happening now, in Vietnam.

It is changing and the ways of life are moving on.  In 5,000 years time, what would archaeologists make of the assemblages of carefully cleaned bones in the remains of their ‘second hones’,  if the stories associated with these traditions have been lost, too?

Thoughts to conjure with.

Bernie Bell is a regular contributor to The Orkney News – check out some of her other stories. 

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6 replies »

  1. I’m sorry, but I find this a very patronising piece of nonsense throughout. To start with, was the holiday in North Vietnam or South Vietnam? We are not told. The writer still thinks of war when hearing the word “Vietnam”. What? Does that happen with the word “Germany” or “Argentina”? It then gets worse culminating in the comparisons with Neolithic and/or Bronze age people. Really!

  2. I’m telling a story, of an experience I/we had. Am I not allowed to do that?
    I did finish with the words “Thoughts to conjure with”
    As to the comparison between the present ‘Death Day’ ceremonies, and the Neolithic ways of death – that’s how I see it – I see a strong comparison. Am I not allowed to do that either?
    I don’t mean to be patronising, and I doubt if Wendy meant to be patronising either – Vietnam suffered terrible treatment, and is now recovering well. This, to me, is a good thing to hear of.
    And no, the word ‘Germany’ doesn’t produce that response in me, I’m not old enough. Vietnam, however, and Argentina, yes, they do. I remember seeing the sinking of the Belgrano on the television. Those images stay with you.
    I don’t lay blame on America, or Germany, or Britain, but the memories are there. Am I not allowed to do that either?
    There is a lot of emphasis on remembering, to try to prevent wrong things happening again. I’m not sure if that works, but forgetting completely, air-brushing events such as those from our personal and/or collective memories, I honestly think would be a lot more patronising than telling a tale of a story I was told, a story which I felt held a good message about how places, and people, can recover from damage done to them. That would be a case of ‘I’m all-right Jack – my life is ok, so I won’t remember the hard things that happened – especially if they happened to other people.’
    No, that won’t do, that would be worse than patronising.
    Yours is a very angry message.
    I wonder who you are, and why so angry.
    I suspect you might find that patronising too! That’s up to you.
    Lord! But that sounds smug!
    I’ll continue to tell my tales, and do what I do and live as l live.
    If I’m allowed to do so without a totalitarian regime clamping down on my civil liberties and freedom of expression.
    You can’t please everyone, and I don’t even particularly try to please anyone. I just write of experiences and the thoughts and the responses which those experiences produce.
    Would you prefer if folk kept their thoughts and responses themselves? You finish your piece with “Really!” I ask, really, would yo rather folk didn’t express, in case it annoys someone? Really?

  3. What a fascinating article, Bernie. That is a very interesting thought about customs around death. It is always a pleasure to read what you write.

  4. Hello Bernie,
    I enjoyed reading your piece about Vietnam. Frankly all these years later, I do think of war when I hear the words Vietnam, Germany and Argentina! Not suprising when you think of all the media we were bombarded with repeatedly to do with the wars. The impact of which has a perhaps a greater impact on younger less cynical more trusting minds. However that fact does not seem patronizing to me. Look at the impact the first and second world war had on us here. We never stop talking about it or re-watching all the horror of it. War and war images traumatize. ‘Dont mention the war’ attitude is silly and patronising, and I think most people, myself included are perfectly aware that the past or present war torn countries have far more too them than war including our own. Different customs in different cultures remain curious and interesting, and the family cleaning the decomposed bones ready for the day of death made me cringe a bit, because it’s alien to me and our culture, and I can imajine the smell since I once did this myself to get a bird skull. Yuck -never again! That’s an honest reaction and not patronizing. Just as the ie: the Chinese are disgusted by our drinking milk which they veiw as like flem. Life’s too short to find fault with every other thing, especially peoples well intentioned essays. You cant please all of the people all of the time, but it’s good to please some. Keep on keeping on writing!

    PS, archeologist of the future (if the world exists long enough) will be digging up breast implants and body piercing jewelry and artificial limbs among other perhaps less interesting artifacts in our western throw away society.


  5. I came across this, whilst sorting through old emails, and I think it’s relevant………….
    I wrote it after encountering someone with very limited views.
    Diff’rent strokes, for diff’rent folks.

    Travel Broadens The Mind

    First we have First Nation
    With their love of Nature Spirits
    Their Shamans and Sweat Lodges.

    Then down to Mexico town,
    ‘Days of Death’, Peyote dreams
    Opening doors of the mind.

    ‘Dream-time’ in Oz with the
    world’s oldest people.
    They won’t own the land,
    Just live upon it.

    Africa, many nations,
    Always warring, different visions.
    Egyptian cat lore,
    Trackways to the stars.

    And so to India.
    Hundreds of Gods,
    Of many shapes and colours,
    Each with a purpose
    Yet all one God.

    Across to the Norsemen,
    Following the Eagle,
    Burning their dead
    on high funeral pyres.
    Invading the Western Isles,
    Carrying their vision.

    And so to the Church of England,
    Blending from the Pagan,
    Using the old sites,
    Acknowledging the presence,
    Though often with anger,
    Whilst preaching Love.

    Strange ways indeed.

    Bernie Bell

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