Death in the British Museum: Object in Focus

Being invited by our wonderful Cemetery Club master of ceremonies Sheldon K. Goodman to participate in Death in the British Museum this coming Saturday has given me a little push towards reevaluating what the massive museum collection in Bloomsbury means to me. It has encouraged me to consider the importance of furnereal objects and how they connect us to our ancestors in powerful ways.

Caption: Vietnamese incense-burner (British Museum number 1985,0125.1)
Vietnamese incense-burner (British Museum number 1985,0125.1)

This Vietnamese incense-burner, decorated with dragons and lions, is made of stoneware glazed to resemble jade. The high level of artistic achievement attained in the Vietnamese ceramic tradition. A wonder to behold, it was made in the reign of the 15th emperor of the later Le Dynasty of Vietnam (1428–1788). The later Le Dynasty is often considered the golden era of Vietnamese history, because Emperor Le Loi (1384-1433) defeated the mighty Ming army, overthrew Chinese rule and instituted reforms that favoured the people. Many ordinary folk were able to rise in social standing through merit. It was also during the later Le Dynasty that southern expansion saw the borders reach deep into the Mekong Delta, giving the country the dragon-shape that makes up modern Vietnam.

I have long lamented the fact that there are so few Vietnamese objects on display in British collections. There are several reasons for this, with the most obvious perhaps being because Vietnam was a French colonial possession, so you might likely have more luck finding artefacts in France. Another reason is ancient Vietnam changed names many times as it fell in and out of Chinese rule.

What’s interesting for me though is in our culture is a strong sense of knowing we are the underdog, but we will always be able to defeat much bigger opponents. If not in one generation, maybe ten generations, but no one rules over our people but us. Interestingly though, what’s often left behind is a fascinating intermingling of cultural habits and traditions from the departing imperial power albeit Chinese, French or American.

Le Loi leads the Vietnamese army in battle against the Ming overlord.

It follows too with this incense-burner as it does show strong Chinese influence. As an object dating to the later Le Dynasty it is likely to have been used in the Vietnamese imperial court more as a liturgical ornament than a religious one, meaning it speaks more to the power of the Emperor and his mandate to rule over our people, than it serves as an object of Buddhist devotion. Yet it also reinforces an inherited notion of Confucian family and social structure introduced to Vietnam by the Chinese in the first era of rule (111BC-40AD). 

When it comes to death rituals in Vietnam there are some very impressive ceremonies and traditions. The rituals of spirit worship and ancestor veneration require elaborate offerings of fruit, sweets, gifts, ‘ghost money’ and sometimes paper gifts (paper replicas of things useful in the afterlife). Death rituals give descendents of the deceased a chance to fulfil their filial duties and find a sense of closure. Mourning lasts for 49 days, or 7 weeks of 7 days, and at the end of that period all matters must conclude so life can go on.

Traditionally the eldest son is supposed to make all the many arrangements for the ceremonies, and for his labours he inherits the family house. However, with reward comes responsibilities and he is also meant to provide for all remaining relatives and descendents as the new head of the family. Rituals are repeated annually for the anniversary of death ceremonies when the family cleans the graves of ancestors and offers a ceremonial banquet (or if you’re ever a poor student I once was, you pray that a packet of noodles will suffice). 

File:Vietnamese shrine for dead youth.jpg
Photo via Clear Path International, Wikimedia Commons

In each household the traditional rituals centre around a family altar table as it is where you commune with ancestors. Incense sticks are burned to create a link with ancestors, acting as a bridge between the material world and the spiritual world. The fragrant smoke rising into heaven carries the prayers of us mortals towards divine ears. There’s a very special fragrance to Vietnamese joss sticks too, a mix of cinnamon and agarwood with a hint of eucalyptus.

There’s also little rules about how you light the sticks. My grandpa taught me to calm the flames by waving the air around the joss sticks, how to hold them to my forehead as well as completing a prayer with three nods holding them, placing them in the incense-burner, following up with three further nods with prayer hands and finally three kowtows. Such a ritual confirms one’s position within your family as  well as society. The order is clear, you are duty bound to act in the service of your parents, your family, your neighbourhood, your community, the nation and at the top of the hierarchy within the Earthly realm there is the Emperor. 

Returning to the incense-burner, I believe it serves as a reminder that we are just a teeny tiny part of a much bigger, more impressive human existence. A vital aspect of Vietnamese culture is that those who come before us are not truly gone: they have a continual presence and influence over our actions. Acting with decency is a means of honouring them. What we do in our lifetime has an impact on our ancestors as well as our descendants. Therefore the past and present can, in a way, be intermingled. Interesting to think then, even as I find myself in isolation I am not truly alone because there are always spirits to keep me company. Similarly for you, what ignites the conversation between you and the past is via an object like this incense-burner… you simply light some joss sticks, say a short prayer and make an offering.


Dan Vo is a freelance media producer and museum consultant. As a community curator, he is helping to create a Vietnamese living room for display in the reopened Museum of the Home in East London. Dan is co-presenting Death in the British Museum with Sheldon Goodman on Saturday August 24, tickets are available here.

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