Gen. Vang Pao will begin a journey into the afterlife on Friday when Hmong elders start a six-day funeral to guide his spirit home.
Many Hmong consider the ceremony to be a critical final stage of life.
"Your body will die, but the soul will move on and connect to the next life," said Bee Yang, a Fresno State faculty member and Hmong language and culture expert who is one of the funeral supervisors. "In order to connect to the next life, there's a proper way they have to do it."
A traditional Hmong funeral lasts three to four days, but six days were needed for all the funeral rites for someone as important as Vang, organizers said.
As a military leader allied with the U.S. during the Vietnam War and later as a patriarch for refugees in America, Vang had been an influential figure for decades.
"In the Hmong culture, there are a certain number of days [for a funeral] that are adequate for people of high rank or a dignitary," said Chai Vang, his son and family spokesman. "My father is a special person and it takes six days to do the traditional passing."
Vang's body will be escorted into the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center on Friday by a color guard and a procession of Hmong veterans and American military personnel.
While at the center, his body will be surrounded by thousands of white flowers and folded pieces of gold-colored paper that symbolize paper money. The gold paper will later be burned to provide Vang with money in the afterlife.
Over the six-day funeral, Hmong path guiders will chant songs and play a drum and the qeej, a Hmong bamboo wind instrument, to lead Vang's spirit back through all the places where he had lived before reuniting with his ancestors' spirits in Longhay, Laos.
Mourners will stay at the funeral all day and night to keep the family company and also participate in the Hmong ceremonies.
Up to 40,000 people from around the world are expected to pay their respects to the revered Hmong leader, who died Jan. 6 in a Clovis hospital of pneumonia. Mourners will be able to line up and pass Vang's casket.
"I don't think anything compares to this," Yang said. "I know in Laos we never had funerals this big before. This is huge."
The spirit journey
The funeral's first day will include a reading of Vang's biography, followed by speeches and gift presentations from community organizations.
In the afternoon, the first of three Hmong ceremonies will begin.
An elder serving as the path guider will send Vang's spirit into the afterlife with a series of songs about the creation of earth and the dues the general must pay before reuniting with his ancestors.
Vang's spirit will stop at his longtime home in the Southern California city of Westminster before traveling to Montana, France, Thailand and Laos, said Wang Her Vang, one of two elders overseeing the funeral rites.
In Laos, the general's soul will be guided to Longcheng -- his secret CIA headquarters during the Vietnam War -- then Xiengkhouang, a northern province, before alighting in his birth home of Longhay.
The journey to the afterlife "depends on how old the person is and how many places this person migrated to," Yang said. "The general went to so many places, I imagine it will be many hours before getting to his birthplace."
The next ceremony, which will be on Saturday morning, allows the general's family members to pay their respects. The family will present rice, chicken, drinks and paper money for Vang's journey through the spirit world.
The last part of the service is an overnight ceremony starting Tuesday night that is known as the blessing. A ceremony elder will speak to mourners about the importance of family relationships.