Two deaths and a funeral

Ritual inscriptions’ affordances for mourning and moral personhood in Vietnam

by MERAV SHOHET

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Mortuary rituals constitute the social nature of death and mourning, often working to ease painful transitions for the deceased and bereaved. In Vietnam, such rituals involve objects, including commodified yet personalized text-artifacts like banners and placards bearing inscriptions in various scripts that are associated with various affects and different political-economic regimes. The material, orthographic, semantic, spatial, and temporal organization of these text-artifacts mobilize sentiments and structure ethical relations at a funeral. Together, they act as prescriptive affordances intended to discipline mourners’ grief. Yet while these objects reflect how subjects valorize “tradition,” their affective force exceeds the bounded subjunctive world fostered by ritual, and it may retrospectively limit possibilities for moral personhood.

Mourners stand at an altar inside the home of the newly deceased Lê Hiếu Long in Đà Nẵng, Việt Nam, July 15, 2007. The black-and-white banner hanging atop the house's entrance announces, in romanized Vietnamese (quốc ngữ) script, a “Condolences Ritual and Memorial Ceremony” for “Comrade” (real name obscured to protect anonymity). The red-and-yellow altar banner embroidered in a Sino-romanized script—together with flower wreaths that, like the outdoor banner, bear printed quốc ngữ inscriptions—emphasizes the high status of the deceased and his family, as well as their relations as virtuous citizens and loving kin.
Mourners stand at an altar inside the home of the newly deceased Lê Hiếu Long in Đà Nẵng, Việt Nam, July 15, 2007. The black-and-white banner hanging atop the house's entrance announces, in romanized Vietnamese (quốc ngữ) script, a “Condolences Ritual and Memorial Ceremony” for “Comrade” (real name obscured to protect anonymity). The red-and-yellow altar banner embroidered in a Sino-romanized script—together with flower wreaths that, like the outdoor banner, bear printed quốc ngữ inscriptions—emphasizes the high status of the deceased and his family, as well as their relations as virtuous citizens and loving kin. (Merav Shohet)