A hero's confusing funeral

It's really hard to ignore religion when it comes to death. Those questions of what happens to us when we die often become even more heightened during the funeral, reflection and mourning periods.

You would hope that reporters might pick up on this major detail when covering a funeral, but we found few details in the coverage of the funeral for Gen. Vang Pao, a Hmong hero of the Central Intelligence Agency's war in Laos. The New York Times article does point out how there usually is some sort of religious ritual for funerals per Hmong custom.

If Vang Pao had died a simple farmer like so many other Hmong here, his funeral would have been an elaborate affair.

For three days, as Hmong custom has it, his family and friends would have mourned in high-pitched chants, feasted on freshly slaughtered beef and burned a giant pile of paper money to buy his soul into the spirit world.

The article focuses on the question of whether General Vang Pao could be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Last week, the Pentagon said that it would not waive a policy that restricts military burials at the cemetery to American military members. But in Fresno, California, Pao's funeral lasted six days and nights, with 10 cows slaughtered.

If this was a traditional Hmong funeral, it came with plenty of modifications, said Lee Vang, a nephew of the general who helped organize the service.

There were 30 spiritual guides instead of one. The wood coffin was not like those usually favored by the Hmong: Orthodox Jewish models with the Star of David engraved on top. This coffin, the nephew said, had been planed and carved and flown in by a team of Hmong men from St. Paul.

These details are really great to include, but they appear more confusing than helpful. Reader Micheal Hickerson sent in his reaction:

I loved the details of the service. Yet I was still left with a basic question: what religion was being described? I had assumed that most Hmong were Buddhist or perhaps Catholic converts, but the article refers to shamans and spiritual guides. Was this traditional Hmong religion, or a syncretistic tradition perhaps? And I loved the detail that most Hmong are buried in Orthodox Jewish caskets with the Star of David on them, but WHY? Is the Star of David significant to Hmong? Or is there something else about Orthodox Jewish caskets that the Hmong favor? Again, I loved the details, but I wish I had more context.

What he said.

Funerals often reveal the religious views of the person being honored, through the message given, rituals or symbols. It sounds like this particular funeral was almost multi-religious, but it doesn't help us understand much about the man being honored or what he believed. The article could have shed more light on some of the Hmong culture, describing commonly-held beliefs about life after death.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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