80-year old woman spends half century living alongside the dead

By Diep Phan, Huu Khoa   November 20, 2019 | 04:32 am PT
Bui Xuan Huong longs for Tet (Lunar New Year Festival) since it is the only time of the year when her neighborhood comes alive.

She lives in the Kien An-Ngoc Lu Cemetery in Saigon’s District 2, and people come during Tet to visit their loved ones in the graveyard.

At 80 Huong still walks around the graveyard every day to clean and burn incense to the dead. She started doing this work almost 50 years ago and now lives with four generations of her family in the cemetery.

Huong has cared for the graves for almost 50 years. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Huong has cared for the graves for almost 50 years. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Huong says: "My husband used to help me but he passed away five years ago. My children moved in to live with me and help a lot."

Half a century ago a group of people from Kien An and Ngoc Lu districts in Hai Phong City and the then province of Ha Nam Ninh in the north bought this plot of land to bury their loved ones in Saigon.

Since 1975 the cemetery has been run by the authorities.

Huong and her husband were allowed to build a house in the middle of the cemetery to care for the graves. For the last 50 years she has been cutting the grass, sweeping the leaves and cleaning the graves without getting paid for it.

Her income comes from the people who have their near and dear ones resting there. "I never ask for money, they can give whatever they want."

"Time flies. It has been 50 years and now there are over 1,200 graves."

Most of the graves were built by her eldest son Dang Hung Anh. He too lives there with his family. Huong’s three other children, all teachers, live nearby and regularly call on their mother.

Not just a livelihood

Huong jokes that living among the graves somehow makes her feel better because of the blessings bestowed by the deceased.

"I take care of the graves so they can rest in peace, there is nothing to be afraid of. We just need to do good things with a pure heart."

Huong cuts the grass. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Huong cuts the grass. Photo by VnExpressHuu Khoa.

The only time something odd occurred was in 1990. "A 12-year-old boy passed away and they buried him just before Tet. For several days after that I constantly heard a boy screaming. I thought it was my imagination."

She regularly burns incenses and talks to the boy on his death anniversary.

But none of the 1,200 graves in the cemetery scares her since she insists it is the living who are dangerous and not the dead.

Years ago, when the cemetery was not fenced or walled, drug addicts would come inside to smoke or inject their drugs or sleep, and would leave syringes behind.

She had to wear gloves and boots to protect herself and collect them before cleaning the graves or cutting the grass.

"I would often see them while cleaning the graves. I once talked to some of the men and knew that many of them had just been released from prison. I could not prevent them from sleeping on the tomb. So I let them do that and later bought some offerings to ask the dead for forgiveness."

"Many people think this is the place for the dead, and so throw dead animals inside, creating an awful stench."

All this made her build walls around the cemetery.

Huongs 4-generation family. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Four generations of Huong’s family live together in the cemetery. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Anh’s family moved to live with Huong four years ago. But the man who used to dig graves and build tombs has been unemployed for a decade since there is no more space left and authorities have banned people from using the cemetery for burial.

Dinh Thi Tuong Vi, Anh’s daughter-in-law, says: "I am not afraid of anything. I’ve got used to this. We have water, electricity and tranquility. I don’t think I can get back to noisy places [outside]."

She has a small stall outside the cemetery that sells food to people visiting their loved ones in the graveyard.

Huong said she has lived here more than half of her life and cannot imagine living elsewhere. "I do not want to move because I will not get used to other places."

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