Never having been to a Buddhist funeral before, I wasn’t sure what to wear, what to do or what to expect. I’d read many years ago that many Asians wear white as a symbol of mourning. Sure enough, the few articles I checked regarding Vietnamese funerals indicated that mourners wear white. In the more traditional events, they also wore pointed white hats. Since this particular family includes third generation Americans, I expected they might skip the hats due to association with another traditional American group.
As for what colors to wear, I decided to check with the family. I contacted my friend and colleague Eddie and requested that he ask our colleague Gaileen, “Is it okay if I wear gray and black?” Since the funeral was for her father, I considered her to be an appropriate authority. She replied that those colors would be fine and in fact the family would be wearing black.
Indeed they were. They also wore white headbands. Along with the monks, they gathered at the front of the funeral chapel in Wichita where Binh’s casket was surrounded by numerous sprays of flowers. Unlike the monks, the family knelt together to honor the deceased. They remained kneeling while one of their religious leaders led the group through a series of chants and songs. Periodically, one monk would signal to the family to bow and they bowed together. I never understood a word of the chanting but I noticed that on some of the segments, many members of the audience joined in with him.
I imagine that at least some of the songs are part of ancient tradition, carried forward through many generations of Vietnamese. These were likely some of the same notes and words that sounded in villages and cities thousands of miles away. Peasants and lords, workmen and royalty, farmers and shopkeepers. Whether prince or pauper, when someone died, friends and family, neighbors and near of blood would come together for honor, for remembrance and for sharing.
Here in this nation of immigrants and indigenous peoples, we had gathered to honor a life and comfort those left behind. As we filed past the body and dropped flowers into the casket, I was reminded that even when we do not share faith, we should share sorrow.
I paused beside Binh Nguyen’s body, added my flower to the growing bouquet and bowed slightly. To him, to the family, to humanity. We are larger than our differences and infinitely smaller than the God who has made us all.