Family works as funeral musicians thru four generations

By Quynh Nguyen, Hai Hien   May 12, 2024 | 12:00 am PT
Kieu Van Thanh’s two sons, 22 and 18 years old, mark the fourth generation in his family of funeral musicians and professional mourners.

The Kieu family career began in the 1950s. During the funeral of Thanh’s great-grandfather, the family accidentally upset the hired funeral music band, which had traveled nearly 20 kilometers for the job, leaving their reputation ruined until years later.

Seeing many of his family members possessing musical talent, Thanh’s grandfather then came up with the idea of forming his own funeral music troupe, and the tradition has remained with the family to this day.

Kieu Van Thanh plays the electric guitar at a funeral in Hanoi in 2024. Photo courtesy of Thanh

Kieu Van Thanh plays the electric guitar at a funeral in Hanoi in 2024. Photo courtesy of Thanh

According to Kieu Van Bay, Thanh’s uncle who started working in the troupe nearly 20 years ago, during their prime, their family’s band was so popular that they served not only in their small village in suburban Hanoi, but also the nearby provinces of Thai Nguyen, Hung Yen, Hai Phong, and Thai Binh.

"Many people’s last words reflected their wish that only when the Kieu troupe arrived, should their funeral start," Bay recalled.

Previously, the troupe played trumpets and drums to mourn for the dead on behalf of his or her family. At nightfall, they changed into costumes to perform ancient stories, such as the tale of Buddha’s disciple Maudgalyayana saving his mother from hell.

Now, such theatrical storytelling is common in rural areas only. When the Kieu troupe is invited to perform in cities, the play, if any, is shortened to 45 minutes.

However, the troupe’s mourning music is still always requested. It is often performed on behalf of absent family members, who are living so far away that they cannot make it to the funeral, which is common nowadays.


Thanh said that many paid-mourning troupes join the families of the deceased in wearing mourning dresses and performing overly-dismal wails next to the casket. But his troupe doesn’t operate that way. Instead they sing out the grief in hearty melody in a way that is more action and less performance. Songs performed by Kieu troupe must express both cherished memories of the deceased as well as the grief of the alive.

Kieu Van Thanh’s oldest son (far L) and his two relatives play at a funeral in Hanoi on April 26, 2024. Photo courtesy of Thanh

Kieu Van Thanh’s oldest son (far L) and his two relatives play at a funeral in Hanoi on April 26, 2024. Photo courtesy of Thanh

Normally each "role" will have its own song, such as children crying for their parents, wives or husbands for their spouses, grandchildren for their grandparents, or siblings for each other.

Even in funerary rituals attended by every family member, professional mourners are still requested to, on behalf of the family, express their grief in the form of songs. For families with only a few people, the homeowner typically asks the troupe to sing with the hope that the deceased will feel less lonely. In many cases where the deceased departed life in pitiful conditions, Thanh, as a professional mourner, wails impromptu from his heart instead of singing prepared songs.

In the past, professional mourners often used haunting ancient melodies from cheo, a form of Vietnamese traditional musical theater that is generally satirical. Nowadays, they also play modern songs such as "Long Me" ("Mother’s Love"), "Tinh Cha" ("Father’s Love"), "Mot Coi Di Ve" ("A Place for Returning"), or "Hon Tu Si" ("Soul of the Martyred Soldier"). The troupe’s musical instruments include traditional drums, trumpets, flutes, Vietnamese two-chord fiddles, Vietnamese three-chord fiddles, moon-shaped lutes, and electric guitars.

From Thanh’s point of view, to do this job, one must also be able to sing well and be a skilled musician. When he was young, he learned to sing by enrolling in an elementary vocal course in Hanoi, then learned more about music from his father’s generation.

To keep his singing voice healthy, Thanh abstains from alcohol and iced drinks, and sings within his vocal range to protect his larynx. When he was young, he worked almost every day, but now he only works every other day to maintain good health with a day of rest in between.


Currently, a mourning performance for a two-day event costs VND5 million (US$197). Families who are well-off or satisfied with the performance may give the troupe a tip. But for those who are poverty-stricken, Thanh and his band do not take money or take just enough to cover travel expenses.

"A few years ago, we played the funeral of a poor lonely old man, and we donated all of our wages," recalled Thanh.

"Whatever you do should flow from your heart," he added. "A few coins cannot make you rich."

However, Thanh sometimes feels sorry for himself because others look down on him and discriminate against him, believing that things associated with funerals, including his job, bring bad luck.

Furthermore, going out early in the morning and returning late at night, combined with the toll the performances took on their health, drained the troupe to the point where an ensemble that once had dozens of members is now left with only a few. If the troupe is booked for multiple events in a single day, Thanh has to seek support from his fellow villagers.

Kieu Van Thanh (far R) and members of the Kieu troupe at a funeral in Hanoi in 2023. Photo courtesy of Thanh

Kieu Van Thanh (far R) and members of the Kieu troupe at a funeral in Hanoi in 2023. Photo courtesy of Thanh

Still unique

Kieu Van Thinh, head of Thanh’s village, said that the Kieu family has produced four generations of unique professional mourners. While other funeral bands only play trumpets and drums, Thanh’s troupe composes emotional songs for the deceased’s descendants, he added.

In particular, the classical plays in the evening before bringing the deceased to their resting place have also been passed down through multiple generations, and now mark a unique tradition in Thanh’s village.

"Villagers come to the funeral not only to offer condolences, but also to see the plays telling tales of filial piety," said Thinh.

Ngoc Hoa, a 62-year-old villager, said she has been watching performances by the Kieu troupe since she was a kid. According to her, the touching lyrics not only express sadness but also remind listeners of the efforts spent by grandparents and parents in raising their families’ children.

Representing the troupe family’s third generation, Thanh said he was fortunate to have two out of his four sons currently following the family path. Instead of learning and training by themselves, the sons have received formal vocal and musical training, and are now super dedicated to their work, according to Thanh.

"As long as my sons and I are here, the Kieu troupe is here," he added.

"Our troupe means that the expression of traditional cultural features we’ve inherited from previous generations will continue to be preserved."

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