The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume VI, Number 1, Pages 70-76
Winter-Spring, 1993

 

The Final Journey Home: Chinese Burial Practices in Spokane


by Judy Nelson

JUDY NELSON is a reference assistant at Spokane Public Library. In this article, from an M.A. thesis she is writing at Eastern Washington University, she describes the practice of reburialexhuming the bodies of Chinese buried in Spokane for reburial in China. The practice is one of many signs of the strong attachment early Chinese immigrants felt for their homeland.


Many Chinese immigrants in America did not return to China to live out their lives and die. Some could not make enough money to return to China and stayed in America to succumb to old age. Others died of sickness or accidents, or fell victim to violence by human hands. Whether they died in china or America, most Chinese preferred to be buried with their ancestors at home in their native villages. Even if born in America, many expected to be buried beside their fathers' graves in China.

In China traditional burial customs hinged on two beliefs absorbed in early childhood. The first was religious in nature and stemmed from the Confusian principle of ancestor worship, or filial piety. Children were taught to be grateful for their existence to their parents and grandparents. When they reached adulthood they repaid their debt of gratitude by venerating their parents and ancestors. Co-mingling with filial loyalty was the belief in the existence of spirits. Children were instilled with the fear that "if filial, piestic duties were neglected, displeased ancestors may return to haunt or bring ill fortune to the living descendants."(1) The need to show piety toward parents combined with the fear of displeased spirits led the Chinese to placate and impress their parents, both before and after their death. "One of the best gifts a dutiful son can give his parents while they are alive, is a pair of handsome coffins."(2) By this act parents were assured of their son's filial piety and could assume such acts would continue after death.

When parents had passed on, offerings were made with the intent of placating the deceased. Food, incense, paper money, and paper clothing were placed before the family alter and at the grave site. The Chinese made these offerings to ensure that their ancestors had food and money in the spirit world. Graves demanded the constant care of family members and: "Those who abandoned this duty not only were unfilial but also incurred the dire displeasure of the spirits and the condemnation of their neighbors and society at large."(3)

The Chinese who migrated to America left home with the intention of returning in order to resume their filial duties.(4) But they also returned for fear that in a foreign land no one would, in turn, tend their graves and placate their spirits. A Chinese proverb states, "If one who attains honor and wealth never returns to his original place, he is like a finely dressed person walking in the dark."(5)

It was necessary then to form burial practices in America which satisfied Chinese filial custom. When death occurred away from the ancestral burial ground, the Chinese were buried in the towns where they died. Their funerals were elaborate and grave sites were carefully chosen. But these graves were only temporary and arrangements were made for the eventual return of their remains.

In Spokane there were several burial sites containing Chinese graves. One such site was in Browne's Addition at the end of West Pacific Avenue. Mr. D.H. Dwight, a builder in Spokane who lived in the city during the turn of the century, recalled a number of graves there which belonged to the Chinese.(6) A second site existed on the Northern Pacific right-of-way between Ash and Oak Streets. Fairmount and Greenwood Cemeteries were also used by the Chinese for burial.(7)

The Browne's Addition and Northern Pacific burial sites were used because they met with long standing customary specifications.(8) Both were beyond the community, on a hill overlooking water, on land not used for farming. Fairmount Cemetery is set on a ridge above the Spokane River, Greenwood Cemetery also contains a hillside and creek with running water.

Chinese burials were well remembered by Spokane citizens for their pomp and ceremony. One burial in particular stands out. Hoy Chong Gar, a Chinese doctor and owner of Wing Wo Chinese Medicine Company, was buried in 1926.(9) He was well respected by the Chinese and white populace. A citizen by birth and twenty-year resident of Spokane, his funeral was one of the largest held in the city.

Over 1,000 people attended the service, crowding the yard and porch area of his home. Those who could not fit there spilled out into neighboring yards and rooftops. Words were said under a canopy in the yard by Reverend Louis Magin of St. Paul's Methodist Church. A choir sang several selections, and a band played Chopin's funeral march. To this tune the widow of the deceased came down the steps of her home, veiled and dressed in black. Her sobs were heard by the mourners as they passed the coffin to view the body while the band played the funeral dirge.(10)

When this was done, pall bearers placed the casket in the hearse. Flowers filled three more automobiles. Another auto carried Mr. Gar's nephew whose head and arm were wrapped with white crepe bands. He held aloft a picture of his uncle. A police escort led the procession which, band included, was so long that at one point it stretched over three quarters of a mile. Men from Hennessey and Calloway, the local funeral home, were commissioned to drop strips of perforated paper which the Chinese believed frightened evil spirits.(11)

The procession marched from Mr. Gar's Boone Street residence to Monroe, south on Monroe to Main, then west to Wall Mr. Gar's place of business stood. Here the grievers paused and, "stood rigid in respect" for one full minutetwo hours after the service had begun.(12) This was to allow the deceased to bid his business a final farewell.(13) The procession then proceeded north to Fairmount Cemetery.

At the cemetery Chinese burial customs were followed. Wine was poured from goblets onto the carpet leading into the vault. White meat of a white rooster and other delicacies were placed on the steps.(14)

Despite this show of respect by the community and family, these elaborate funeral arrangements did not satisfy the wishes of the deceased. Hoy Gar's body remained in the vault only two years. Although he was an American citizen and a twenty-year resident of Spokane, he wanted his body to rest beside those of his ancestors. In honor of his wishes, his family accompanied him to China for final burial.(15)

Hoy Gar's arrival and reburial was witnessed by Barr Yep, who later emigrated to Spokane. He recalled playing at Hoy Gar's reburial in China as a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy. He and ten other youths, members of a school band, were paid a dollar each to perform at his service. They played horns and drums. Over four hundred people attended, the family passed out "lucky money," the equivalent of twenty cents each to those who came. After Hoy Gar's death, Mrs. Gar, a young widow, returned to America and moved her family to Seattle. She remarried and is now in her nineties.(16)

Hoy Gar's story furnishes a vivid example of the Chinese custom of sending "home" the remains of those who died in foreign lands. Emigrants paid fees assessed for this purpose to family associations. In later years annual dues were paid to ensure the return of remains to China. The costs were high in turn-of-the-century dollars. They included a public health fee of $10 per grave and $5 shipment fee per box. Reburial was an additional $7 per grave.(17)

Family and district associations, as well as the Six Companies were involved in the business of returning bodies.(18) When a person died, his friends passed the information on to the company or association which he belonged to, which would make the arrangements for the return of the bones to China.

In 1896 theSpokesman-Review reported a visit from Fang Chung, "Chief scraper and gatherer of the bones of dead Chinamen for the Six Companies..."(19) Fang Chung came to collect the bones of two Chinese men. They were just two of his list of 500 to be gathered on his tour from San Francisco, north to Washington State, including Spokane, then to Eto, Idaho, and back to California. Fang Chung then accompanied the consignment to China where the relatives of the deceased awaited their arrival.(20)

To be ready for the final journey home the bodies had to be properly buried, exhumed, and painstakingly prepared. The bodies were buried in shallow graves allowing for exposure to the air, which ensured quick decay.(21) Fang Chung, or someone similar, followed a process like this:

The bones are carefully gathered, placed on a clean cloth and left to dry for a few hours, when they are taken up and the particles of earth are removed with a stiff wire brush, which is followed by another rubbing with a clean dry cloth. Although, they are by this time well cleaned, custom rules that they shall be gone over a second time with a cloth, when they are ready to be deposited in a zinc box 18 inches long by 10 inches in depth and height. They are then disinfected, sealed hermetically and are ready for shipment to China..(22)

In the process it was necessary to allow the body enough time to decay so that a knife would not be needed to separate tissue from bone. The use of a knife was forbidden, the idea being that a knife should never be used on a dead body just as it should not be used on the living.(23)

The disinterment of the bones from the grave was difficult. Some human bones are only a little larger than a bean, "Accuracy is assured by counting the small bones of the foot, there being 25 bones below the ankle joint."(24) Each set of remains returned home in a fetal position, the thigh bones upright and skull placed in last.(25)

The arrival of remains in China was a time of celebration. Relatives awaited the deceased at port side.(26) The bones were then transferred from boxes to jars and given to those who were to care for them.(27) Such occasions were social as well as ceremonial:

...there is a big feast, at which prominent Chinamen are called upon to make appropriate addresses. A list of the names of the departed ones, whose remains have been thus disposed of, is read off and each is bidden farewell in turn as is he were alive.(28)

The Chinese who came to Americawith every intention of returning home to diewere at least assured that one way or the other they could, in the end, lie with their fathers on Chinese soil. In 1858, 521 bodies were shipped on a French ship to China, and were followed by 258 in 1863.(29) By 1875 the numbers had increased and one Chinese company alone, the Kong Chow Company, was responsible for returning 1,002 sets of bones to China.(30) Records show that such shipments occurred on a regular basis. "Because of this practice," writes one authority, "there are no Chinese cemeteries in the God Rush area of California and, possibly, not even a Chinese grave of the era left."(31)

It is not known how many Chinese were buried and exhumed from Spokane cemeteries. The funeral notices that appear in the papers and the reminiscences of longstanding citizens point to the return of many. Browne's Addition's Chinese cemetery now lies under a condominium. Years ago a mansion was built on this site. During its construction a body was found which was never identified. When the condominium went up three more bodies were found, however these proved to be those of Native Americans.(32) Fairmount Cemetery records are arranged by name, making it difficult to ascertain how many have been left behind. But after a cursory search by Fairmount Memorial Park staff, one Chinese man was found to still be there, Dung John Ah who died April 3, 1894. Three others were listed as exhumed and shipped to China.(33)

A more in-depth search of Greenwood Cemetery records from 1888 to 1907 show fourteen Chinese buried between the years 1888 and 1902.(34) Those buried between 1888 and 1896 were disinterred and shipped to China, seemingly in a group, in October 1903. No shipment dates were shown for those sent back to China who were buried between 1897 and 1902. One man was shipped in 1926, who died in 1905. In this cemetery all Chinese graves were in block 2 of the grounds, on which the Chinese community shared two lots.(35) One lot holds sixteen graves. Block 2 lies against a bank from which a stream flows. Brush now covers some of the area. According to Greenwood's records these lots no longer contain Chinese graves.(36)

Every year the Chinese community gathers donations in order to put flowers on Chinese graves in Spokane. The left over money has been saved and will be used to purchase lots in Riverside Cemetery. A stone will be erected marking a new Chinese section.(37)

A smaller cemetery lies between Sandpoint and Hope, Idaho. The "Chinese Cemetery" also called the "Coolie Cemetery" or "Old Hope Cemetery," is now abandoned. But it was once used by the Chinese to bury their dead. Bonner Historical Society records mention three Chinese railroad laborers still buried there and many who had been shipped home. One old timer, Paul Croy, used to tell tales of raiding the burial feasts with his brother.(38)

Considering the importance of burial at home in China to the early Chinese emigrants, evidence of remaining Chinese graves seems a sad thing. Yet in 1936 the reburial custom stopped altogether following a series of international events. That year the Japanese invaded China and World War II followed. Then, the internal Communist-Nationalist conflict closed China's borders to even the remains of Chinese emigrants.

But interestingly, the tables were turned, at least in one instance. Barr Yepthe longtime Spokane resident who as a youth in China had witnessed Hoy Gar's reburialwas unable to bring his bride to America because of the war and the closed borders. His wife, Chen Yep, died in China, and was initially buried there. Later her remains were shipped to America. Chen Yep's ashes, contained in a white ceramic vase with her image set in its glazed surface, are now in a place of honor in Barr Yep's living room in Spokane.(39)

NOTES

(1)Sylvia Sun Minnick,Chinese Funeral Customs (Sacramento, California, 1981), 2.

(2)Minnick,Funeral Customs, 2, 3.

(3)Jack Chen,The Chinese of America (San Francisco, California, 1980), 20.

(4)Ibid..

(5)Aubrey L. White, "Chinese Burials of Early Day Recalled by Dwight," Spokesman-Review, December 5, 1943, Special Section, 4.

(6)Ibid..

(7)"Buried with Roast Chicken," Spokesman-Review, December 21, 1899, 8:2. See also "A Chinese Funeral,"Spokesman-Review, March 12, 1889, 1 and "Chinese Funeral Draws Throngs," Spokesman-Review, March 9, 1926, 1.

(8)"Chinese Burials of Early Day Recalled by Dwight,"Spokesman-Review, December 5, 1943, Special Section, 4.

(9)"Chinese Funeral Draws Throngs: Hoy Chong Gar Rites Among Largest Held Here; Band Leads Way,"Spokesman-Review, March 9, 1926, 1.

(10)Ibid..

(11)Ibid..

(12)Ibid..

(13)Minnick, Funeral Customs, 10.

(14)Spokesman-Review, March 9, 1926, 1. See also "Hoy Gar Burial to be Colorful," Spokesman-Review, March 8, 1926, 1 and "Many to Mourn Chinese Doctor," Spokesman-Review, March 1, 1926, 6.

(15)"Chinese Funeral to Draw Throngs," Spokesman-Review, March 9, 1926, 1.

(16)Interview with Barr Yep conducted by the author, May 25, 1993.

(17)Minnick, Funeral Customs, 13.

(18)Chen, Chinese of America, 20. See also Spokesman-Review, August 15, 1896, 3.

(19)Spokesman-Review, August 15, 1896, 3.

(20)Ibid..

(21)Edith E. Erickson, Ng Eddy, From Sojourner to Citizen: Chinese of the Inland Empire (Colfax, Washington: University Printing, 1989), 21.

(22)"Their Bones Rise Again: Remains of Forty Chinamen Disinterred," Spokesman-Review, September 24, 1905, 7.

(23)Ibid..

(24)Ibid..

(25)Minnick, Funeral Customs, 13.

(26)"Gruesome Office: Gang Chung, Chief Gatherer of Chinese Bones, Is in the City," Spokesman-Review, August 15, 1896, 3.

(27)"Their Bones Rise Again: Remains of Forty Chinamen Disinterred," Spokesman-Review, September 24, 1905, 7.

(28)Ibid..

(29)Minnick, Funeral Customs, 13.

(30)Chen, Chinese of America, 29.

(31)Minnick, Funeral Customs, 3.

(32)Interview, Nancy Compau, May 22, 1993. Nancy Compau works at Spokane Public Library with the Northwest Collection.

(33)Fairmount Memorial Park Cemetery Records. Courtesy of Fairmount staff, May 13, 1993.

(34)Greenwood Cemetery Records, 1888-1907.

(35)Ibid..

(36)Interview, Shelley Colvin, Greenwood Cemetery employee, May 25, 1993.

(37)Telephone Interview, Barr Yep, May 25, 1993.

(38)Telephone Interview, Ann Ferguson with Bonner County Historical Society, May 13, 1993. Ann Ferguson reported that this information was provided by Coffelt F.S. Moon Chapel's (also known as Coffelt Moon Funeral Home) funeral records in Sandpoint, Idaho. Telephone Interview, Dale Coffelt, owner of Coffelt F.S. Moon Chapel in Sandpoint, Idaho, May 24 and 25, 1993. Dale Coffelt verified that he has records of the burials of: Hong Lai, age 58, died 1922; Lai Yi, age 58, died 1924; and Tai Quam, age 66, died 1924. Telephone Interview, Catherine Littlefield, former museum director and founder of Bonner County Historical Society, May 25, 1993. Catherine Littlefield verified Paul Croy's story as related to her years ago by Paul Croy himself. Mr. Croy, advanced in years, is no longer able to remember the incident. Ms. Littlefield also mentioned that the three remaining Chinese buried in Hope were unable to afford the fees for the return of their remains.

(39)Interview, Barr Yep, July 1992. This interview took place in the apartment of Barr Yep.