Living alone in the largest cemetery in HCM City over the past 40 years, Nghia accepts the deceased as her parents and adopted children, and volunteers to take care of the graves.
Nghia takes care of graves
Hearing the dogs barking loudly, Tran Thi Nghia, 62, peered out from an old funeral parlor in the largest cemetery in HCM City. She drove the dogs away who then disappeared among the graves, and then came out to receive guests.
This is the 42nd year she has lived in the middle of Binh Hung Hoa Cemetery, and the 42nd year she has taken care of the graves.
A dilapidated room in the cemetery, which is her living place, is full of furnishings. With no space left, she asked guests to sit down next to a grave and began the conversation.
When she was young, Nghia lived in a house in District 6, HCM City. Good business allowed her to lead a good life. However, after a lot of upheavals, she lost all her assets. She drifted to many places before settling down in the cemetery.
Nghia lived in an abandoned funeral parlor because she had nowhere to live. Every day, she earned her living by taking heavy jobs. Some years later, a relative of hers bought a land plot and built a house for her.
Nghia and her mother moved to the new house and hoped their lives would be better. However, the mother fell seriously sick and the income from unstable jobs was not enough to buy medicine. She had to sell the new house after a short period of living there.
As she had nowhere to live, Nghia returned to the cemetery, and has been living there since.
“I prayed that if God keeps me healthy, I will take care of the graves until my end of life. Time has flown by. Forty two years have elapsed,” she said.
Nghia lives in the dilapidated room and works as hired labor every day. On off days, she spends time on weeding, clearing bushes and cleaning graves. Though she is poor, she still saves money to buy materials to decorate graves.
“I take care of all the graves, regardless of whether the graves have relatives or not,” she said. “The relatives of the deceased sometimes visit the cemetery and give me money.”
Nghia saves the money so that she can buy materials to repair the graves that need improvement. She has been doing this since 1980.
Living for more than half of her life in the resting place of the deceased, Nghia has her own spiritual beliefs.
She believes that like the living who want to live in comfortable houses, the deceased also want clean and beautiful graves. She saves money to repair the graves covered with earth and whitewashes them to keep them fresh.
Nghia said she spends less time on the graves built spaciously with bricks and granite. She just needs to sweep away the dry leaves and wipe the area clean.
“I do this to prevent graves, especially derelict graves from losing traces. If one day, their relatives come to exhume and move the graves to other places, they will find the graves,” she said.
After many years of taking care of graves, Nghia said she has special affection for the work that no ones want to do. She even accepts the deceased in derelict graves as grandparents, parents and children, and takes care of their graves.
“I ask the deceased to allow me to be a relative of theirs. They are assured that there is a relative who takes care and protects their graves like other people lying in the cemetery,” she said.
“As a relative, I have higher responsibility in taking care for the graves,” she added.
Nghia has heard that the cemetery will be moved to another place. Some graves have been exhumed and brought to new places. However, there are still some derelict graves around where Nghia lives. She still takes care and cleans the graves every day.
She recently painted the graves again for the Lunar New Year. “I painted the graves with green, because the color symbolizes hope. I hope the deceased in the graves will find their relatives one day,” she explained.
“If so, I will feel happy even though I cannot live here any longer,” she said.
For the last 40 years, she comes to clear grass, burn incense, and sit and talk at the martyrs’ graves at the cemetery every day.