Writing Guidance for Hmong Funerals during COVID-19
After three months of community engagement, input gathering, and writing, MDH released the “Guidance for Hmong Funerals during COVID-19” in August 2020. This guidance was the result of a collaborative effort of the MDH Asian and Pacific Islander (API) COVID-19 Community Liaison team, several Hmong staff from local public health agencies, community leaders, business leaders, and Hmong cultural and spiritual leaders. This guidance demonstrates the importance and impact of culturally specific health guidance as well as the value of working directly with community members to collaboratively develop health messaging.
The Community Liaison team became aware of the need for this type of guidance early on in the COVID-19 response. Because Hmong funerals typically last three days and involve large family gatherings, concerns about how the virus would impact funerals arose from community members and funeral home owners. “We were hearing about it from our own families or people in the community who knew the work that we were doing,” said Sincai Vue of the MDH API Community Liaison team.
More technical mortuary science guidance directed funeral homes on what to do in the early stages of the Minnesota response, but as time progressed and restrictions loosened, a need arose for more culturally specific instructions. Once the state entered Phase 3 of reopening, the MDH API Community Liaison team saw a chance to support the Hmong community as the state adapted to the new reality of COVID-19. They convened a group to create this culturally specific guidance in partnership with people from the community.
From the onset of this work, the API Community Liaison team did not have an agenda or specific end product in mind; it was a truly collaborative process. They wanted to bring in people from the Hmong community who had knowledge and expertise in order to have a genuine discussion about what the community needed. “From the very beginning we were clear with everyone that our team are the facilitators and coordinators of this and that we are not the sole writer or owner of the guidance,” emphasized Chong Lee, leader of the MDH API Community Liaison team. In May, they began virtually hosting a group that included Hmong legislators, metro Hmong public health liaisons, funeral home owners, and cultural and spiritual leaders, including Hmong 18 Council President Nao Houa Moua. These community partners brought expertise and led the development of the cultural portion of the guidance. Several meetings with deep cultural discussions among community leaders ultimately led to the creation of the new document.
The guidance consists of two main sections. First, it concisely summarizes the broad funeral requirements for COVID-19 safety as issued by Minnesota Executive Orders and CDC, such as masking requirements and facility capacity recommendations. Then, it provides detailed, culturally specific information about how these guidelines can be applied in the context of Hmong funeral traditions. These guidelines were written by the Hmong 18 Clan Council and other Hmong cultural and spiritual leaders, and they indicate the minimum practices needed to properly complete a Hmong funeral in one day. For example, the guidance includes the personnel and family members who should be present, the songs that should be performed, and the items needed for the blessing ceremony. “In our culture it is a standard for many families to come together and mourn for the deceased,” said Nao Houa Moua, president of the Hmong 18 Council. “It's very hard to have a limited amount of family members attend in a time where their presence is much needed. However, with the guidance from MDH it will help decrease the exposure to COVID-19 and decrease the COVID cases in the Hmong community.”
Challenges and reception
Sincai Vue noted that some of the greatest challenges in this process were coordinating times to convene and working within the fast-paced timeline of COVID-19. Many people involved in the project were juggling multiple professional and personal roles as well as the added challenges of working from home during the pandemic.
The success of this process is evidenced by its positive reception in the Hmong community. Before it was published, Chong Lee presented the document before the Hmong 18 Council, where it received an enthusiastic response from community leaders. Since then, it has been shared widely via radio, 3HmongTV, several diverse media outlets, community-based organizations, local public health agencies, and funeral home owners. The MDH API COVID-19 Community Liaison team has received feedback that it will be useful not only to address the challenges of COVID-19, but also to document ways of appropriately adapting Hmong funeral practices to a shortened ceremony. Duzong Yang of the Community Liaison team shared, “I hope this guidance will take one more heavy load off of families’ shoulders and help them create a safe space to remember their loved ones.”
This process of meaningful community engagement in public health guidance creation is one that the Community Liaison team at MDH hopes to maintain beyond the COVID-19 response.