Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Laotian funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Moldovan funeral traditions and Honduran funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
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Laotian Religious Beliefs
Buddhism is the most common religion in Laos with 66% of the population identifying as Buddhist, as of 2010. Theravada Buddhism is the most common branch of Buddhism practiced in Laos. Buddhists believe in reincarnation — the cycle of death and rebirth. The goal is to escape the cycle and reach Nirvana, the end of suffering.
Laotians have several superstitions surrounding death and the deceased, including:
- Not killing any animals for meals during the funeral time.
- Not taking home any food from the funeral.
- Avoiding making noodle dishes until after the funeral. They consider noodles as strings that could tie the deceased to their former life instead of moving on.
- Besides the music and rituals associated with the funeral service, not playing music, singing, or dancing during the funeral.
- Washing their hands with blessed water before leaving the funeral home and entering their home.
Preparation of the Body
When someone is dying, their family members encourage them to recite Buddhist scripture or repeat Buddha’s name. If they’re unable to speak, one of their family members will whisper it in their ear.
After someone dies, they wash the body in a ritual bathing ceremony and pour water over one of the deceased’s hands. Then, they place the body in the casket for the wake.
At the wake, mourners can come to pay their respects to the deceased and support the grieving family. The body may be kept at home for one to three days before the funeral. However, they don’t keep the body at home if the person died unexpectedly or in an accident.
There is a funeral procession to the crematory or burial location for the Laotian funeral ceremony. Cremation is more common than burial, and both embalming and cremation are acceptable funeral practices for Buddhists.
A typical funeral procession is led by Buddhist monks, followed by nuns in white robes holding the ceremonial white cloth, family members, the hearse with the casket, and friends. For the procession, male mourners shave their heads and wear Buddhist monks’ robes.
Laotian Funeral Service
A Laotian funeral service is typically led by Buddhist monks. They lead everyone in songs and prayers. Depending on the family’s preferences, the funeral can be extravagant or a fairly simple service.
For cremation, they place the casket on a pyre. There’s also usually a funeral tower placed over the casket with the ceremonial white cloth hung on it. The monks, family, and other mourners offer candles and flowers to the deceased. After the monks lead the prayers, the female family members light the pyre. Afterward, they gather the ashes and bones to put in a small stupa.
After the funeral, the deceased’s family has several memorial services to honor their memory, especially 100 days and one year after the death. The mourning period varies from person to person and how well they knew the deceased.