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.
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.