Death of a child

The incident

During my internship in a public hospital I was surprised by the behaviour of a family. A 5-month-old child died and the family came to the morgue with cakes and drinks as if they were coming to celebrate a happy event. The family was quite a big group, of around 70 people. The parents were dressed in white and the guests in orange and red. There was also a Buddhist monk with them. The situation touched me, it made me wonder about their culture.

1. Identities of the actors in the situation

Social worker on internship in the hospital: the incident takes place during her training of social work.  She is a French woman, in her twenties, without experience of living abroad. Non-practicing catholic, non familiar with Asian cultures.

Very little is known about the family, the only piece of information concerns the Vietnamese origin of one of the parents. The people present seemed to be from the same cultural background (similar constitution of the face, skin and hair colour).

Representations of Vietnamese diaspora in France

There is an important Vietnamese diaspora in France, result of the colonialist history (Vietnam was part of the Indo-chinese union – “Union Indochinoise” – established by France).  There have been three successive immigration waves : during the French dominion in the first half of the 20th century Vietnamese men have been recruited to join the French army, shortly after the independence of Vietnam and the establishment of the Communist regime, finally between 1975 and 1990. According to estimation there may be 350,000 people in France with Vietnamese origins.  Since most of them were either students or entrepreneurs, their integration into French society did not have many obstacles, they are spread through different social classes. Though there is the asymmetry of the colonialist past (colonised vs coloniser) in current French society the representation of the Vietnamese does not have negative associations.

2. Context of the situation

The incident takes place in the funeral parlour of the hospital.  The family members of the dead child arrive with cakes and drinks. The parents were dressed in white and the rest of the family in orange-red. There was a Buddhist monk in the room.

3. Emotional reaction

“The dominant feelings were that of embarrassment, uneasiness caused by the behaviour of the family towards the dead child.  I felt disturbed and refused to share the custom I have witnessed and I felt like withdrawing. Later I asked colleagues to give me some explanation on what I have seen.”

4. Representations, values, norms, ideas, prejudice: The frame of references of the person who experienced the shock.

Funeral, mourning rites

In the modern west death implies the end of the individual, especially in the context of atheism it implies a real, definitive end, one of the worst things that can happen. The only thing worse is to see the death of a child, as the child often represents one’s own continuity beyond one’s death. Accordingly, mourning in France as in most western cultures is about sadness and marking the inevitable and irreversible separation

  • Grief and sadness for the dead is expected, celebration or happiness is not acceptable for mourning: this would imply a lack of respect for the dead, indicating that their disappearance is not so upsetting.
  • Wearing black is the general dress code in mourning. Bright colours could again indicate joy and a lack of respect: despite the loss, life goes on.
  • Food and drinks can be part of a farewell dinner, however this does not take place in the same space as the dead body, but rather follows the funeral. The idea of food and drinks in the same space with the dead body implies a strange confusion of the idea of death and the living, triggering uneasiness.


In France, it is the wake that is open to a larger circle of friends, a funeral parlour usually only concerns a closer circle of friends and family, and must be solemn.

5. What image emerges from the analysis of point 4 for the other group (neutral slightly negative, very negative, "stigmatized", positive, very positive, real, unreal) etc?

Negative, bizarre as they seem to disrespect the dead child.

6. Representations, values, norms, prejudice: The frame of references of the person or group that is causing the shock / that caused the shock in the narrator.


Traditionally mourning family members wear white, which is associated with purity and death.  Orange is usually reserved for the monks. In this situation, the appearance of orange is possibly connected to the death of a very young child.

Interdependent / collectivist tendency

More in line with a collectivist, interdependent orientation, for the Vietnamese, important events must be celebrated or shared with the family and the community.

Death as a stage, not an end

Death is not seen as an end but a new beginning (reincarnation). So to help the soul of the deceased to go in peace, the family must keep their sadness and grief for themselves. Peace and serenity are hallmarks of a Buddhist funeral.

Bad death / good death and offerings:

Vietnamese tradition distinguishes ‘good death’ and ‘bad death’. The death of a very young child, such as in this case, can only be a bad death, resulting in the work of bad spirits.  In such cases the bad spirits have to be comforted by offerings of food and drinks so as to free the family or the community from their bad intentions.


Traditions and cultural practices often have to be adapted in accordance with the host society, in this case France.  As communities evolve, meanings change which could be explained why the traditions are not performed exactly according to the original choreography.

7. Does the situation highlight any problem concerning the professional practice, or in general about the respect of cultural differences in intercultural situations?

Customs and traditions of mourning and funerals differ radically across cultures, but for all cultures it is one of the most important rites. Accordingly, it is surrounded by rites that are charged with meanings that can only be read and understood through the reference frame of that specific culture.  People from other cultures and religions can sometimes find the rites of others scary or disturbing. In particular, westerners represent death as a major taboo, separating it from the living and find it difficult to face rites in which the dead person, body or death appears as more connected to the world of the living.