Cloaks like this one are given and worn for special occasions in the Zomi culture. After death, the body is wrapped in such a cloak. (Courtesy Francis Kham)
Cloaks like this one are given and worn for special occasions in the Zomi culture. After death, the body is wrapped in such a cloak. (Courtesy Francis Kham)
In the old days, the sharp report of a gun alerted Zomi villagers in Myanmar (formerly Burma) that there had been a death. If the deceased had been a Christian, my ancestors would also have heard the church’s bells — either from the Catholic church or the Protestant. For animists, the gun blast would join the throb of big drums.

Zomi traditions have changed a bit in Oregon.

Gunfire doesn’t announce a death here, and people’s workloads and busy daily schedules mean they can’t spend days and even weeks mourning as a community as they did in Myanmar.

Even so, the Zomi people’s devotion to community isn’t just words. We look out for each other. When someone dies, it’s each person’s responsibility to support the sorrowing family. That’s true even when the deceased died in Burma. We gather and mourn together.

For instance, I was in Malaysia when my dad and mom died. The day they died, the Zomi community came to my house. There was a memorial service in the church. That made a big difference to me.

Even when we don’t know the person who died, we show up for someone during that hard time, because it makes a difference in releasing the pain and sadness.

In Myanmar the guns and bells traditionally begin four days of intense mourning, with the body at the family home for the first three of those days. On the first night, the community prays for the family and celebrates the life of the deceased. On the second day, the family gathers to make a funeral plan, dig the grave and make a casket. The body is clothed in the deceased’s best garments, then wrapped in a traditional men’s or women’s cloak. A rosary is placed in the hands of the dead person if he or she was Catholic.

Before Christianity came to Myanmar, the funeral, on the third day, was also at the family house. Now Christian Zomi funerals are at a church.

A century and more ago, a funeral might also involve displays of how many slaves or captured enemies a person owned, or the killing of a fierce animal — a tiger or an elephant — to demonstrate the power of the deceased.

When Christianity arrived, those traditions were put aside. That was a benefit to the people of Zogam, the traditional word for where the Zomi lived. Hatred between different clans had been part of the old ways, but Christianity replaced that tradition with forgiveness and love.

The French priests of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris were the first Catholic missionaries in Burma, arriving in some parts of the country by the early 1800s, in particular Zogam, the northern part of the Chin state.

In Oregon, when a member of the Zomi community dies, we gather at the family’s home just as we would have done in Myanmar. The difference is that the body is not present.

Here, as in Myanmar, after a person dies, people in the community practice “sih delhna,” bringing tea, sugar and condensed milk, symbols of the giver’s deep sympathy. In Myanmar, people also bring “zu,” a mildly alcoholic drink. Bringing a small cash gift or other donation is also customary.

In Myanmar, on the second day, the family often slaughters a cow or pig to feed the community, who continue to mourn with the family, and on the third day, the day of the funeral, another animal is slaughtered, for the continuing gathering of the community. People continue to bring tea, sugar and milk.

The day after the funeral is called “han dalni.” Again, relatives and the community gather, and again, the family offers them food to show appreciation for their support.

The family also takes a plate of the meal to leave at the grave.

Nearly all the Zomi prefer burial to cremation.

In the United States most funerals take place on a Saturday. Different groups (women, men, youths) take responsibility for leading prayer and bringing the tea, sugar, and milk and other donations to the mourning family’s home on the days before the funeral. The family also pray at the funeral home, when that is allowed.

On the day of the funeral, people dress either in black or in their traditional colors: red, green or blue on a field of white or black.

After the funeral Mass, a family member or someone assigned to the task describes the deceased, including his or her genealogical relationships in the community. People contribute stories and songs.

At the graveyard, the priest and people follow the universal traditions of the church, singing the litany and saying the prayers of the burial rite. Once it’s lowered into the grave, the casket disappears beneath the earth and flowers thrown by mourners.

A reception follows. In Oregon, because people’s apartments are sometimes small, this may take place at the parish hall, although the home is preferred. People usually stay late into the night, singing and praying.

The han dalni brings another reception, with people often bringing envelopes with cash.

Community members might stop by over the course of a week or longer.

I would add that there is no restriction on who can participate at a mourner’s home. Some people might think, “This is their community and we will give them their privacy.”

But we don’t have that privacy. We feel the others at the parish are our extended faith family and they can show up on our doorstep.

It shows we are not alone.

Kristen Hannum contributed to this story.