The deep voice of Cha Wa Kou Xiong drifted through the Cooley Community Chapel in west Fresno, providing lyrical directions to guide the spirit of Dara Thao to heaven. But in death, as in life, Dara Thao's song was short.
At traditional Hmong funerals, the spirit of a departed loved one is guided by song on a reverse journey through life. Those who are old and have lived in many places require longer songs to carry them back to their place of birth, where it is believed the spirit must go to find its way into the next life.
Dara Thao, who died at 19, was born in San Diego and lived in Visalia and Denver before coming to Fresno. Those who knew her wonder about the things she might have done and the places she might have seen if her life had not been cut short.
Thao's body was found June 7 in the north fork of the Kings River near Balch Camp. The body of her 21-month-old son, Kurtis Lee, was found five days earlier about two miles upstream.
Authorities have not determined why Thao, who was last seen May 26, drove into the mountains two hours east of Fresno nor how she and her son ended up in the river.
As Xiong sang the Hmong words that would carry Thao's spirit back in time to the place of her birth, relatives and friends moved in and out of the chapel to pay their respects. Many sat quietly in pews. Others chatted with friends while children wandered about.
Several mourners contributed money to help defray the cost of Thao's funeral, then bowed toward the casket to express their respect and sorrow.
Xiong sat next to Dara Thao's closed casket as he sang. Gold and silver papers, folded in the shape of boats, lined a nearby wall. The papers, one from each family member, represented money for the spirit's journey and would be burned later.
In an adjacent building, volunteers cut up the meat from five cows butchered to feed mourners. More than 1,000 people were expected to attend Thao's funeral, which began at 7 a.m. Saturday and will conclude at 1 p.m. Monday.
Lee Yang, 21, a cousin to Thao by marriage, arrived at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and sat in a folding chair next to Thao's closed casket. She maintained her vigil for more than three hours without tears, not wanting to distract Thao's spirit while Xiong was singing.
Tears filled Yang's eyes when she finally stepped away from the casket and sat on a nearby pew.
"I wanted to be by Dara's side," Yang explained. "I didn't want her to be scared. I never got a chance [while Thao was alive] to tell her everything would be OK."
Yang, who gave birth to a son five months ago, valued Thao's advice on taking care of babies.
"Dara was fun and so positive," Yang said. "She loved her son and always worried about him. I never thought I would lose someone so close to me, so young and outgoing."
Yang has fond memories of doing Thao's nails and going out to dinner with her.
Youa Chang of Visalia, Thao's aunt, helped care for Dara when she was an infant. Chang, too, sat by the casket, wanting to be near the young woman she calls "my baby" one last time.
"We lived in San Diego, and I took care of Dara until she was 3 years old and we moved to Visalia," Chang said. "I remember when she was little, she always carried her bottle and a blanket as she followed me around."
Xiong, who sang for about three hours, completed Thao's song a few minutes after noon. Drumbeats and the haunting tones of the qeej, a traditional Hmong flute made of six bamboo tubes, continued to provide guidance for Thao's spirit after Xiong stepped away.
But new sounds of sorrow quickly filled the room as relatives approached the casket and cried openly while some sang mournful laments in Hmong.
David Raygoza, principal at Pershing High School, presented the diploma Dara Thao was to have received May 30 to Thao's husband, Kor Lee.
"Dara was a highly intelligent and highly motivated student," Raygoza said. "She completed four years of high school in 2 1/2 years. She was friendly and always had a big smile. Her death is a tremendous loss for Pershing High School and the Central Unified School District."
Amy Hall, Dara Thao's English teacher, read a poem by Thao that was selected for publication in an anthology of works by California students.
"Once upon a midsummer's night," the poem begins. "I prayed to the stars and heaven to take this pain away.
"But on that night a wish came true for in that instant I met you.
"I'll drop a tear in the ocean and when you find it, that's when I'll stop loving you.
"It's hard to tell your mind to stop loving someone when your heart can't stop."
Tears came to Hall's eyes as she remembered Dara Thao and the potential that was lost with her death.
"I will always remember Dara as one of the most polite, respectful, intelligent and lovely young women I have ever known," Hall said.
"She had a great work ethic. I believe she could have done anything she chose to pursue."
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A memorial fund in Dara Thao's name has been created at the Educational Employees Credit Union. The account number is 11300531. GRAPHIC: PHOTOS BY DIANA BALDRICA -- THE FRESNO BEE TOP: Lee Yang, 21, a friend of Dara Thao, strokes a photograph of the 19-year-old Saturday alongside Thao's coffin during funeral services at Cooley Community Chapel in west Fresno. Lee, Thao's cousin by marriage, arrived at the chapel at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and sat in a folding chair next to Thao's closed casket. She maintained her vigil for more than three hours. ABOVE: Relative Youa Her cries over Thao's coffin.