Thursday, January 10, 2013

Vietnam Journal V: the Afterlife


Watercolor of ornament from tomb of Khai Dinh by Hallie Cohen
Khai Dinh was the second to last emperor of Vietnam. Born in 1885, he assumed the throne in l916 and only ruled for nine years. Like his father, he began work on his own tomb while he was still alive. Khai Dinh’s tomb, Thien Dinh Palace, a majestic brooding structure, which looks like it’s covered in black soot and requires 127 steps to ascend is now a tourist attraction. According to custom the tomb could have been used as a summer residence, if it were completed in a king’s lifetime. But the construction on Dinh’s tomb which started in 1920 was only completed in 1931, when he was already dead. However, the idea of employing a residence for the afterlife in the here and now is something which the western morticians should entertain. Considering the vagaries of both the housing and financial markets, it’s an idea whose time has come. An affluent person could make his funeral arrangements while acquiring a second home in one fell swoop. Americans tend to have a built-in skepticism about mausoleums and tombs, seeing that the funerary business has become so profitable and that many funeral homes are owned by conglomerates. It’s fun to visit Hatshepsut’s tomb or that of Khai Dinh if you are visiting Vietnam, but as Jessica Mitford pointed out in her classic The American Way of Death, a certain amount of financial skullduggery goes with the territory. In Vietnam the afterlife is a big business, but it’s not a business and the ubiquitousness of temples where offerings to the dead are made, to increase their comfort in the hereafter, is a testament to the fact that the desire to remember and be remembered speak to a human drive, that transcends the profit motive.

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