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Preserving a tradition that prepares Hmong souls for eternity

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Shoua Sue Lee
Instructor Shoua Sue Lee (left) plays a qeej, a popular Hmong instrument that is used in traditional funerals. Lee teaches the funeral procedures class at the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Funerals are considered the most elaborate — and important — of all Hmong ceremonies. Their rituals have remained constant for countless generations. 

Now, though, many Hmong-Americans are unfamiliar with the time-honored tradition. St. Paul's Hmong Cultural Center wants to integrate the ancient heritage into modern Hmong society.   

Every Sunday morning, Hmong-Americans gather on the second floor of a small Asian strip mall in St. Paul to learn the traditional funeral songs of their ancestors. 

Xai Lor works at the Hmong Cultural Center, where the classes are held. For thousands of years, said Lor, the rituals surrounding life and death were second nature for most Hmong. 

"The older generation, they learn from their masters and so they recite songs and the procedure over and over again," Lor said. "The younger generation, we're unable to do these things."  

In America, he said, there's less interaction between the generations. And traditions aren't passed along the way they once were. 

Class on a recent Sunday consisted of five men, all former refugees from Laos but now long-time residents of the United States. 

"When you're a kid, you don't know anything about the culture. You just know how to play. But when you grow up, you have to take time to learn your culture," said Loojkaub Vaj.

Danny Xiong
Danny Xiong practices one of the many traditional Hmong funeral songs on April 28, 2013, at the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, Minn. Xiong is a student in the Hmong Funeral Procedures class.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"I didn't know anything about my culture. A lot of my coworkers would ask me and I don't know how to explain it to them. That's one reason why I came here," said Be Vang.

In traditional Hmong culture, religious leaders don't orchestrate the final rites. And there's no handing things over to a funeral director. Members of the community must guide the ceremony.  

Instructor Shoua Sue Lee stands at the front of the classroom playing the qeej, a type of reed pipe dating back to 1100 BC.  During the 3-hour class, he demonstrates the nuances of the bamboo instrument, which is a musical must at Hmong funerals.  

According to Hmong tradition, when a person dies, his soul must return to his birthplace, then travel on to meet his ancestors in the afterlife. Music is believed to ensure safe passage. 

Students like 38-year-old Be Vang can spend years perfecting the lengthy and linguistically complex Hmong funeral songs. 

"The more you hear about it, the more it sounds like poetry. It's very heart warming when you understand it," said Be Vang.

Hmong funeral
Hmong-American students take turns practicing traditional Hmong funeral songs on April 28, 2013. They gather once in week at the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul in a room designed for English language classes.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A Hmong funeral of today, said the center's Xai Lor, isn't much different from one a few centuries back. Ceremonies go for at least 24-hours straight and the deceased continue to be covered with robes made of hemp fiber. 

"On the way to the land of the creator, there will be harsh conditions and there will be some mythical creatures that he or she will approach. If the funeral garb is made of cotton, it will be easily torn," said Lor.

Lor said some younger Hmong talk about being buried in suits or other modern clothing. But that's a risk the elders would never take. They worry ancestors will refuse their souls if they're not dressed in traditional attire. 

It's said that if a Hmong funeral isn't conducted correctly, the deceased may not be able to find his way and his soul will wander for eternity. 

That's lots of pressure on community members, which means lots of Sunday morning practices at the Hmong Cultural Center.