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Reviving a Custom to Bury Their Dead

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yes, begging for money from strangers was humiliating, undignified, but in the beginning, it was a task Dinh The Nguyen gladly performed.

The cause, he said, was worthwhile and almost always the same: A former comrade-in-arms from the South Vietnamese Army who had immigrated to Orange County just months before had died, with no money for a proper funeral.

“It seemed as if I begged for money every day,” said Nguyen, a 56-year-old Westminster resident and a former political prisoner who went on Vietnamese media to appeal to the community for help. “The money came in the beginning, but after awhile, less and less was given and too many were dying.

“But we still had to help each other somehow,” he added.

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Of these early efforts came the American rebirth of a centuries-old custom in the Vietnamese culture: the formation of an “afterlife society” in which members contribute money each time another member dies to help pay for funeral or burial services. Representatives of the organizations also attend the services to show that in death, the deceased is not alone.

Many Vietnamese believe that a person’s soul will wander restlessly, eternally, unless it has a proper funeral and burial service to lay the spirit to rest.

“In our culture, what happens after death is just as important as life itself,” said Thu Dinh Duong of Tustin, who chairs the Westminster-based Afterlife Mutual Assistance Foundation, a group whose 1,200 membership comprises former Vietnamese political prisoners and their families. "[We are] a group of people who seek to help each other at an important juncture in all of our lives--death.”

In coming together this way, the Vietnamese are carrying on a tradition common among immigrants to the United States. Burial societies also were a fixture among Eastern European and other ethnic groups at the beginning of the century, so that first-generation immigrants, whose extended families would have seen to their proper burial in the old country, could be guaranteed the same important rites in a strange land.

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In the United States, the high costs of a burial service--$7,000 on average--contribute to the continuation of traditional funeral or burial ceremonies among such groups as Native Americans, the Amish and Quakers, said Lisa Carlson, executive director of Funeral and Memorial Societies of America and an author who has written about such traditions.

American Jews still are involved in chevra kadisha, or burial societies, a 1,600-year-old tradition in which members are assigned the responsibility of preparing the dead in the traditional Jewish manner, which includes the “purification” of the body with water.

And Chinese Americans, whose traditions and culture intertwine with those of the Vietnamese, have more than a dozen similar “mutual assistance associations” in California, most of them in Los Angeles.

In Orange County, home to Little Saigon and the largest Vietnamese expatriate population in the country (72,000, according to the 1990 U.S. Census), there are two established hoi hau su, or “afterlife societies”: Duong’s group and the Vietnamese Mutual Assistance Assn. The Asian-American Senior Citizens Assn. is in the process of launching its own Comfort in the Afterlife Mutual Assistance program.

In each organization, all of which are incorporated as nonprofit groups, members pay a sign-up fee that goes into the organization’s treasury. Later, as someone dies, each member gives a smaller contribution to help pay for funeral costs.

Sign-up fees and contributions vary, depending on each organization. Members of the Vietnamese Mutual Assistance Assn., whose roster of 6,000 makes it the largest Vietnamese afterlife society in the U.S., pay a $5 or $50 sign-up fee, depending on their age and how long they have belonged, and contribute from 50 cents to $10 per death. Members of the Afterlife Mutual Assistance Foundation pay $49 to join and $3 each when someone dies.

“Some could look at this as a sort of burial insurance, but it’s deeper than that,” said Long Van Nguyen, who in 1979 established the Vietnamese Mutual Assistance Assn. after a friend’s father died and the family lacked the money for a proper burial.

“Even as this sharing of resource gives us peace of mind because we know in death we are taken care of, it also gives us pride because as Vietnamese, we are helping each other,” said Nguyen, of Westminster. “We do it in the spirit of our ancestors, in the spirit of neighborhood and brotherhood and country.”

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It is in this spirit that afterlife society members contribute money and share grief.

Shortly after immigrating to Santa Ana two years ago, Xinh Van Ngac, his wife and six children joined the Afterlife Mutual Assistance Foundation. When his daughter, 28-year-old Bich Huyen, died last year of heart failure, the foundation paid for most of her $3,000 memorial services.

Last month, his wife, 70-year-old Tien Thi Nguyen, passed away and once again, foundation members rallied and raised $2,100 to help pay for the $6,000 funeral service.

At the mortuary, as he waited for a Buddhist monk to arrive to begin the ceremony, Ngac surveyed with satisfaction the details he believed would ensure that his wife receives comfort in the afterworld.

A simple, white satin-lined wood coffin held Tien Thi Nguyen’s embalmed body. Four flower wreaths flanked the polished box. An altar honoring Buddha stood nearby. A table covered with a white cloth and adorned with a picture of his wife was laden with red gladioli, lit candles, burning incense and food offerings.

In Vietnam, where funeral services are relatively inexpensive, the traditional three-day funeral ceremony held for his wife “would have been considered small by even a villager’s standard,” said Ngac, 67, of Santa Ana. “But here, this is more than what I and my children had hoped for.

“Most of us in the foundation don’t know each other,” he said. “But can you imagine it, [the foundation] gave something because members wanted to take care of her, because they’re taking care of each other.”

According to community historians, the practice dates back hundreds of years, when peasants and poor farmers in hamlets and far-flung villages in Vietnam gathered and pooled their meager resources--mostly vegetables, rice and fish for food offerings--when somebody died, to give them a proper burial.

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Generally, Vietnamese, no matter what religion, prefer to be buried. In their homeland, most are buried side by side with their ancestors on the land where they were born, or in the fertile rice fields where they toiled. Only since immigrating to the West have many opted for cremation because the process is cheaper or because they hope one day--if Communist leaders are ever ousted--to have their remains returned to their homeland.

Eventually, such community-sharing efforts evolved into “afterlife societies,” which mushroomed in South Vietnam after 1954 when the Geneva accords divided the country and northerners migrated southward. In Vietnam, the tradition still flourishes.

In the West, the feeling of helplessness as they watched their countrymen die without a funeral ceremony led emigres to return to the time-honored spirit of tuong than tuong te, or mutual support. About 10 Vietnamese emigres die in Orange County a month, according to numbers provided by the afterlife societies.

The Afterlife Mutual Assistance Foundation was launched, for example, when former Vietnamese political prisoners, South Vietnamese veterans or government officials imprisoned by the Communist government were dying of old age and illness suffered from years of hardship.

Another way in which they have given peace to the departed, founding members of afterlife societies said, is by having land where Vietnamese could be buried close to each other.

“We want to provide all the comfort possible for our departed,” said Su Tran with the Vietnamese Mutual Assistance Assn., which in 1985 bought a lot from Angel’s Lawn Cemetery in Anaheim to form the “Village of Eternal Happiness,” whose 2,000 burial sites lie behind a white pagoda-style entrance gate.

“In Vietnam, families and neighbors are buried close together,” said Tran, 42, of Westminster. “In carrying on that tradition, we know they rest in peace, knowing that they are near each other.”

Ven Thi Bui became a member of Tran’s group in 1991, her daughter said, precisely because it was Bui’s wish that the organization bury her alongside other Vietnamese. When Bui died, the association also paid $4,000 of her funeral costs.

“She wasn’t familiar or comfortable with most things here because she was so advanced in age,” said the daughter, 62-year-old Tam Thi Nguyen, one morning while visiting her mother’s grave, located under a shaded tree. “It was her very simple wish that she be buried near other Vietnamese.”

As much mental comfort as the traditions and customs of afterlife societies may provide, a few in the Vietnamese community advise that families also follow the Western practice of financially preparing beforehand for one’s funeral.

“Our people save for our children’s education, save for rainy days, save for everything but death,” said Hop Tran, who oversees the cemetery at Peek Family Colonial Funeral Home. “Most are superstitious. They believe that if you start saving for death, that means you’re literally inviting death.

“Reality is,” he continued, “we live in America and funeral costs are just astronomical and we need to save now.”

That said, Tran admitted, afterlife societies give those of Vietnamese descent what Western efficiency cannot--a sense of community, a cultural tradition that is irreplaceable.

Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam learned this firsthand when his 94-year-old father died earlier this month.

Members of the Vietnamese Mutual Assistance Assn. of which his father, Cat Lam, had been a member since 1979 came to his house to share their condolences within the first hours, he said.

“My father would have been happy with all the expressions of caring,” said Lam, himself a longtime member of the organization. “He joined the group because it allowed him to help himself and others with his small contributions. But he was also proud to be a part of a tradition that came from his homeland and which has taken root here.”


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