This event is believed to be a true story among some of the Hmong community, especially with my parents, who were told this story by their parents. The story is handed down from generation to generation as a cautionary tale to heed the warnings from shamans, specifically when a spiritual healer advises an individual to keep away from funerals for a certain amount of time; such as for a season of the year or for the entire year to come.
In the time of my mother’s great-grandparents, Yang was a young man who was skilled at playing a musical instrument called a qeej (Kheng); it has multiple long bamboo pipes of different pitches, and the instrument can be used for many occasions including funerals. Yang lived in a small village in the mountains of Laos among other surrounding Hmong villages. The villagers were well acquainted, and most of the houses were related.
One day, an elderly shaman from the same village had seen a vision with Yang in it, so he decided to pay Yang a visit. “You must not go to any funerals this season,” warned the elderly shaman. He didn’t explain why. His reason for this warning was simply that he saw it in a vision during a shamanic ritual. “Stay away from funerals,” was the last thing he said before going on his way.
Coincidentally, Yang was already planning on going to a funeral in the next few days. He did not take the advice from the elderly shaman and attended the funeral of a local woman; the wife of a relative. There were many people around when he arrived at the funeral, which was hosted in a property far from other homes. The family of the deceased asked him to play his qeej to help give the other qeej player a break during the night. Yang was glad to be of help, so he took over playing the qeej as many of the family and guests left for the night.
It is tradition for family or guests to stay awake throughout the night, it’s called: watch the night or night watch. The purpose of night watch is to watch the dead; in other words, keep an eye on the corpse. People could stay up in groups in the same room as the body, or people can play musical instruments in that room while the remaining family or guests sleep in the same building or at home.
Tradition. Customs. It’s accustomed for the dead to be harnessed to a rack, that looks like a thin bed or table and is created from bamboo and wood. It’s called a horse because it symbolizes one. It’s still believed today as it was believed in our ancestors’ time, that the dead cannot enter the afterlife without a horse. A horse carries the deceased on a path to the world of the dead and beyond; there is no other way to enter.
It was customary to have the horse rack suspended from the ground with the body resting on top. This was Yang’s view as he played the qeej next to a funeral drummer. They were not playing songs to ferry the dead, they were just playing to accompany the dead that night. The decaying body of the woman dressed in traditional clothes was suspended on the horse rack only a few yards from them. They could smell the rotting odor, but after a few hours, they grew used to the smell. No one else was awake, but the two of them.
Like most people, Yang pitied the dead woman for dying in her youth and he didn’t wasn’t fond of watching the dead. So, the drummer had the task of glancing at the body periodically. The dead woman’s stiff hands suddenly twitched. Frightened, the drummer tossed the large sticks to the side and ran for the next room where the rest of the people were sleeping on the floor. Yang caught the drummer diving into the middle of the sleeping crowd and hid his face. By the time Yang turned his clueless face to look at the body, the dead woman was already standing with the horse rack still attached to her. He dropped the instrument in panic and ran through the room of sleeping people, who all seemed to be in a deep slumber. Yang dashed out the front door, glancing over his shoulder and saw the dead woman treading toward the front door after him. She passed the others on the ground without a care as if she was targeting him and him alone.
Filled with horror, Yang ran around the building hoping to get away, but he ended up at a dead end where a raised pigpen sat a foot off the ground. Loud oinks and short squeals came from the startled pigs as Yang struggled to crawl underneath the pen. He stayed quiet with his belly in the mud and the pigs above him.
Suddenly, the pigs were rattled again. Yang saw a pair of shoes, legs, a white skirt, and a horse rack. The dead woman approached the pigpen, dragging the horse rack in the dirt. She crouched down and started digging underneath the pen, reaching her decaying hand toward him. Yang nearly shouted, but he didn’t. The horse rack was getting stuck at the gate of the pigpen, making it difficult for the dead woman to completely crawl in after him. Yang realized she was unable to get to him. He wiggled as far back as he could and remained there. He watched in terror while the body of the recently dead woman scratched toward him, and appeared possessed. It continued this way for hours, and then the dead woman suddenly went away. Yang was puzzled with her sudden departure, and he stayed under the pigpen in a state of distraught. Then the sun came over the horizon, bringing more people to the funeral. He heard lively voices and chattering around the other side of the building, giving him the courage to come out of hiding.
At first, the family members and elders found Yang’s story hard to believe, but the funeral drummer had the same account and he didn’t remember anything else after shutting his eyes. The drummer said that it was as though he was under a spell, falling asleep instantly. The members of the family found traces of mud and pig droppings on the horse rack and the shoes of the deceased. One of the elders suspected an odd thing had happened, and he asked everyone who slept in the building last night to check their necks. Upon inspecting their necks, everyone found teeth markings and traces of sticky grime—rotting liquid from the dead woman.
The rest of the funeral was rushed. The family of the deceased was given an extra set of instructions after burial rights. Once the family had the coffin closed and boarded shut, one of the family members carved a hole into the top of the coffin just above the dead woman’s heart. A long metal rod was sharpened at one end like a stake, and it was hammered into the coffin, piercing the dead woman’s chest, and pinned her into the ground. The coffin shook violently with a muffled scream from inside. The people were extremely shocked, yet they waited until it was silent to make sure she was truly dead before shoving dirt over the coffin and burying her.
News of this incident traveled quickly among the villagers and spread throughout other villages, reaching my mother’s great-grandparents; around the same time, the story also reached my father’s side of the family. It soon became a cautionary tale among the community. To this day, Hmong elders take the warnings of staying away from funerals seriously, especially coming from a shaman.
Art by Bao Xiong