I have a B.S. in Visual Communication but my specialization area in college was Cultural Anthropology and Sociology. That educational background helped me appreciate this assignment that truly piqued my interests.
Wisconsin has the third largest Hmong population in the United States behind California and Minnesota. The Hmong people emigrated to the U.S. from Southeast Asia, many of them refugees from Thailand/Laos, following the Vietnam War.
Wayne Tauber, a funeral director here in Appleton has a special relationship with the Hmong people. He has been given a Hmong name by local elders, "Wa Yeng Lee," as a testament to his dedication to catering to the Hmong people's funeral needs.
"These are my people," he says. "These are my families. These are the people I serve."
Hmong funerals differ greatly from Western or American tradition. They typically last a number of days, have hundreds or perhaps a thousand visitors, and involve presentation of symbolic paper money and live animals. A chicken is also sacrificed as part of the ceremony; its spirit is believed to guide the deceased into the afterlife.
Nowadays, Tauber orders specially-made caskets for the funerals. They are handbuilt in Laos, entirely constructed of wood (there can be no metal or plastics of any kind) and many carry spiritually-significant designs engraved on them.
This assignment really made my day. I valued the opportunity to talk with Mr. Tauber about the customs and extraordinary experiences he's had with the Hmongs. I left with no doubt in my mind that he genuinely loves his job and, likewise, the Hmongs indeed love him.