Future of Us: Forced to downsize their funerals, Hmong families returned to their roots

A man stands among strands of ceremonial paper
Hmong healer Xifu Yaj Ceeb Vaj poses with ceremonial strands of bamboo paper, which represent monetary offerings the deceased takes to the spirit world, during a funeral service at the Koob Moo Funeral Chapel in St. Paul.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

This story is part of a series called “The Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Hmong healer Xifu Yaj Ceeb Vaj traveled almost every week throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and California to perform funerals. It was difficult for Vaj to leave his wife and three kids, and put himself at risk. But when he looks back, he is proud he did it. “My people still need me,” he says.

The virus was especially hard on the Hmong community. Of COVID-related deaths among Asian Minnesotans in 2020, nearly half were Hmong. And because of pandemic restrictions, the large and often lavish days-long funeral ceremonies practiced by Hmong Americans were no longer possible.

It was a reminder of another painful time.

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“When the pandemic hit, for a lot of elders who are still alive, it’s similar to the Vietnam War,” Vaj said. “A lot of people that died in the Vietnam War didn't have a proper funeral.”

A man stands next to a ceremonial drum
Hmong healer Xifu Yaj Ceeb Vaj stands next to a lub nruas, a funeral ritual drum.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Traditional Hmong funerals last three days because that is how long it takes to help the deceased make their spiritual journey home. Not having a proper funeral is like leaving “a tree without roots,” Vaj said.

Still, Vaj sees an upside to the disruption. What was before often a ‘“first-class” experience with an abundance of food and alcohol became an “economy class” event, he said.

With the social aspect of the funeral custom stripped away, the centuries-old ritual became the focus, giving younger generations an opportunity to connect with their cultural roots in a new way. And with that came a realization, Vaj said: The ritual is more important than the social gathering.

In the midst of this shift, Vaj sees his role moving forward as a connector across the generations as they try to navigate — and carry on — the cultural traditions.

“I'm the bridge that can connect the old world to the new world and the new world back to the old so that the younger generation learns how to appreciate [this] and they understand where we're coming from.”

Use the audio player above to hear the full Future of Us conversation with Hmong healer Xifu Yaj Ceeb Vaj.