This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
Shortly after his brother-in-law passed away in August, state Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, was one of many in his family who went to his sister’s house nightly to console her and participate in an important tradition.
At night, Lee and the others folded paper boats for his sister, who would use them to decorate her husband’s funeral space. For her husband’s spirit, the paper boats play a more important role: In Hmong traditions, they act as currency in the afterlife for the deceased person to use once his or her spirit returns to the ancestral homeland.
Aside from making boat money, “zov hmo,” which translates to “night gatherings,” offer a time for family and friends to comfort the deceased person’s family. They stay with them at their home each night to cook, honor the dead, and ward off bad spirits.
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It was here where Lee and roughly two dozen of his family members believe they caught COVID-19.
“Sunday was when we met,” said Lee, who is 29. “Tuesday morning was when I started feeling like I had a scratch behind my throat.”
Before the virus was done with them, Lee had coughed for weeks while fighting to breathe; his partner and his parents would land in the hospital.
Lee’s family story underscores both the importance traditional Hmong funeral practices hold for the community and the urgency in finding safe ways to conduct them during the dangerous COVID-19 era.
Those who practice traditional Hmong funerals believe that the rituals, conducted properly, will guide the spirit of the deceased person back to the ancestral homeland, where they’ll live with the rest of the family.
“If you don’t do it, we believe that the deceased will come back and haunt the family and make people sick,” Lee said. “That’s why it’s so crucial to do it the right way, so the living can live their lives normally.”
To preserve the rituals safely, the Minnesota Health Department worked over the summer with the Hmong 18 Council, a community organization that serves as a conduit for 18 Hmong clans. (Families with names like Lee, Lor, Moua, Vang, Xiong or Yang belong to a clan, which sends a representative to the council). Together, this group came up with guidelines on best practices.
Released in August — shortly after the event where Lee’s family likely contracted the virus — the guidelines recommend smaller, shorter funerals that still maintain the essentials. To some like Sang Moua, who owns Hmong Funeral Home, in St. Paul, the guidelines may point to a more streamlined way to hold traditional funerals in the future. Hmong funerals can be lavish — sometimes too lavish, he said, and put families in a financial bind.
“COVID has shed light on some of these practices,” Moua said.
Chong Lee, a community organizer who leads the Health Department’s Asian and Pacific Islander Community Liaison team, facilitated many of the conversations and meetings that helped develop the guidelines. Those discussions began in May, shortly after the first round of statewide shutdowns.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Hmong-owned funeral homes had to be shut down because families were contracting the virus after attending funerals, Chong Lee said.
“Typically, funerals last a few days,” she said. “And during this pandemic, the longer people are together, the likelier they are to contract the virus.”
Traditionally, Hmong funerals may draw hundreds of people and can last for as long as three days, not including zov hmo. Part of the reason why some funerals last this long is to make time for family members scattered across the country and the globe to travel and attend the funeral. Funerals also usually include a lot of eating, singing, and mingling — perfect situations for a virus to spread.
“We would always joke, ‘If you’re hungry and you don’t have much food at home, a funeral home is always the best place,’” Chong Lee said.
Mourners can scale back the communal table, but no skipping the seven songs
In discussions with Hmong 18 Council, the owners of three Hmong-centered funeral homes in the St. Paul area agreed that they’d follow state recommendations for scaled-down funerals.
Under the state guidelines, funerals should be limited to only one day. The main participants in the ceremony should include no more than eight people: one family representative, two funeral service managers, three reed pipe and drum players, one spiritual guide, and one family spiritual leader.
If families want food and drinks for the funeral, attendance should max out at 25 percent of the funeral venue’s capacity. Food for the ceremony — which may include serving entire cows, as well as cooked chicken and pig — can be scaled back, and officiants do not need to set up the typical communal table for guests. Also optional: a traditional blessing ceremony in which the family members face the casket and forgive any wrongdoings the deceased may have committed in life.
Other rites still must be performed. These include seven songs which, among other things, confirm the death of the deceased, hoist his or her spirit onto a winged steed, and guide it back to the ancestral homeland for rebirth.
In all, the new minimum ceremony requirements can be completed in six to seven hours, Chong Lee said.
Since the guidelines came out, they’ve received a mostly warm reception in the community, according to Paul Xiong, a spokesperson for the Hmong 18 Council. As the council’s representative for the Xiong clan, Paul Xiong reports back on Council decisions to the Xiong clan leader, who then distributes the information down to families.
That’s what he did once the state funeral guidelines were released.
If the deceased person lived a full life or came from an upper class family, longer, three-day funerals tend to be preferred, Xiong said. This has periodically been the case for some families since the state guidelines came out.
“Most of the people follow it, but a few families say, ‘I just want to do it my way,’” Xiong said.
Moua, a funeral home owner and the publisher of the newspaper Hmong Today, said he welcomed the changes, because traditional Hmong funerals can be “overbearing.” In some funerals, he said, each son and daughter of the deceased is encouraged to kill a separate cow. A family may end up with six or seven to pay for and consume. The origami used for decorating the funeral can get very elaborate, he added, and after the ceremony it gets burned in the incinerator. Funeral attendants may gather, around the clock, to cook, kneel, and chant. Some will sleep at the funeral home.
Bottom line for Moua: Even in normal times, some of these practices, which originated in a much different time and setting, can feel unsustainable.
“We have to modify to be more aware of the situation we’re in,” he said.
‘We do not need to lose even more people because we are coming together to mourn the death of somebody’
Chu Wu, who owns Koob Moo Spiritual Center, with locations in St. Paul and Maplewood, said the pandemic has caused a lot of families to dramatically scale back funerals. In some cases, this might be a financial decision. Wu, whose facilities charge by the hour, said some families have been using his funeral home for ceremonies as short as three hours. He’s even had families do direct burials with no ceremony at all.
The scaled-back funerals have impacted business, Wu said. Traditional Hmong funerals can cost as much as $15,000 or $20,000 — and even tens of thousands more, depending on how lavish a ceremony the family wants. But Wu emphasized how hard the situation has hit families, who in many cases changed or delayed funeral plans at the last minute as COVID-19 case numbers spiked.
Families also constantly ask Wu to explain any of the state’s evolving COVID-19 guidelines that could impact funerals, such as indoor capacity limits. For both sides, keeping updated on these protocols can be exhausting.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my goodness. For me to explain to you everything, I can’t. So just go and read the new executive order. It’s all there,’ ” Wu said, chuckling. “But a lot of people will say, ‘No. We’re sick and tired.’ ”
One thing the state guidelines for Hmong funerals don’t cover are the evening zov hmo gatherings leading up to the funerals, like the one where Fue Lee and his family suspect they got infected.
For several weeks afterward, Lee, his partner, and his parents — all of whom live under the same roof — battled the virus. Lee coughed often and lost his sense of taste, smell, and his appetite, too. He experienced shortness of breath to the point where having a routine conversation took effort. His partner felt she couldn’t breathe properly, though a visit to the hospital confirmed her oxygen levels remained at a safe level.
Lee’s parents also spent multiple days in the hospital, but thankfully didn’t get sick enough to require intensive care. Lee and his partner helped his mother, 57, regain her appetite. They all needed to help his father, 76, regain his strength to walk without falling and injuring himself.
Some of Lee’s family members who caught the virus report lingering effects. His partner still has trouble breathing sometimes. And his sister-in-law, who has asthma and is in her mid-40s, landed in the ICU. Months later, she is still using an oxygen tank at home.
Since then, Lee has told his family members to avoid holding zov hmo for the time being.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I think people should know the risk they’re assuming. I understand that there’s a loss in life already, but we do not need to lose even more people because we are coming together to mourn the death of somebody.”
The outbreak caused Lee’s family to delay the funeral for his brother in law for several weeks. But in mid-October, they performed the proper rituals in a daylong ceremony, burying his body the next day.