San Francisco's Chinatown has a rich heritage, a mix of old and new traditions that are continually revitalized by new immigrants and the influences of other cultures. One result of this mix is a unique set of funeral traditions. While there is no such thing as a standard funeral service, there are a set of particularly meaningful rituals that many in this community take part in.
I met with William K. Steiner, manager of The Green Street Mortuary last weekend, and he graciously shared some insights from his 32 years of providing funeral services for this community. Mr Steiner took me on a tour through this historic funeral home which once served primarily the Italian community in North Beach. The funeral home houses four chapels, each of which was prepared for a visitation and funeral.
Bright six foot floral easel sprays flanked the sides of each chapel, and in front of caskets that bore Chinese motifs, lay paper items for burning, altars bearing food and beverage offerings (a whole cooked hog's head and chicken, three cups of rice liquor, three cups of tea, and three sets of chopsticks), incense and paper 'passports' for travel to the afterlife, folded in the shape of a fan.
The smaller paper items such as joss money would be burnt in small grills inside the chapels (they are equipped with exhaust systems), the larger paper pieces, representing houses, cars, airplanes, suits of clothing, servants, and even washing machines, radios and rice cookers, would be burnt at the cemetery after the funerals.
The belief and tradition surrounding these paper items is that when burnt, they go to the deceased in the afterlife, where these items are needed just as much as they are here. Another tradition I witnessed was a silver coin, placed between the lips of the deceased to pay for passage to the next world. This recalled for me the ancient Greek custom of placing a coin the mouth of the deceased to pay passage across the river Styx.
For many years, Chinese immigrants were buried in America only for a few years, then, their remains were disinterred and sent back to China for burial with their ancestors. Today, with China's economic boom leading to expanding construction that threatens these burial grounds, the flow has stopped, and even reversed. Mr. Steiner's firm, SCI, handles a few shipments of remains coming from China for burial in the U.S., but no longer ships them to China.
Asked about cremation in the community he serves, Mr. Steiner told me while once unheard of, cremation has become more acceptable as a result of new immigrants having been required by the Chinese government to cremate their loved ones. Having had no choice, they became accustomed to the practice. Most services at Green Street- cremation or burial- however, are still full traditional services with the body prepared for viewing and present in the chapel prior to disposition.
Most funerals for the Chinese community take place on the weekend, and the Zodiac is consulted to determine auspicious and inauspicious days for the service. As a result, services are often delayed, and many tend to be scheduled for the same day.
In the chapels could be found elaborately woven silk blankets, which family members would ceremonially place in the casket. First a white blanket, representing death, then a red one for life, followed by other colors. I asked about other items being placed in the caskets, and Mr. Steiner explained that clothing and other items had been placed underneath the casket's mattress - packed tightly and weighing up to 200 pounds. A modern innovation on this practice is the use of vacuum sealed bags that reduce volume by removing the air between items. The chapels were all equipped with video monitors, displaying slide shows of family photos accompanied by Chinese music.
The next day, I attended a funeral service where a solemn procession filed to the front of the chapel to bow three times to the deceased and then three times to the family assembled at the front of the chapel. On our way out, we were presented with gifts, in a white envelope were coins and candy, and in a red envelope was paper money.
Upon leaving the funeral home, I met up with Lisa Pollard, Leader of the Green Street Mortuary Brass Band, for the highlight of my visit. Ms. Pollard recommended good vantage points for the procession to follow. After a few minutes, the pallbearers and funeral directors brought out the deceased and placed him in the hearse. The band played 'Amazing Grace' -not usually one of my favorites, but in this case, very moving. The band then took a brief break as mourners and motorcycle escorts lined up in the procession. Once everyone was in place, the band began playing again and led the procession in a winding tour through Chinatown. It is a standard part of all of Chinatown services for the procession to stop at the home for a brief ceremony. The Brass band doesn't travel out of Chinatown, so if the home is outside of Chinatown that ritual takes place later. In this case, the home was inside Chinatown and was the first stop. We arrived after a few turns, guided by the motorcycle escorts.
In front of the home, the procession stopped as the band assembled and the large floral framed photo was placed next to the opened door of the hearse. The band played another rousing hymn. At the end, a gong sounded three times, off-white spirit money was scattered and the procession got underway again. We travelled through heavy traffic and crowds of residents and tourists, making turns every couple of blocks. A traditional belief holds that bad spirits can only travel in a straight line. By turning often through the short blocks of Chinatown, and throwing out the white paper money, the procession confuses and eludes these spirits. The crowds react in many ways, some with reverence, some with impatience and some with curiosity and photographs. What is universal is that every one knows they are witnessing something of importance. Communicating the importance of the life lived, the passage to the next world, and the loss that family and friends are experiencing, is one of the basic purposes of any procession.
The Chinatown portion of the procession ends with another hymn , the gong and the scattering of more paper. Then, the band stands to the side and bows as the convertable, the hearse, limousines and other mourner's cars continue on their way to the cemetery.
After this moving procession, I had an opportunity to talk with Ms. Pollard, Musical Director John Coppola and Percussionist Vince Lateano during a break between funeral processions. The band is comprised of many talented Jazz musicians, and beside the standard hymns, the band's extensive repertoire has grown with many requests. One memorable request that Mr. Coppola recalled was for a Lawrence Welk fan. Prior to the procession, the band played 'Bubbles in the Wine' as Mr. Steiner from the Mortuary blew soap bubbles! Asked if non-Chinese families at Green Street ever used the band, I was told a the story of an Irish Catholic cop whose procession led into the Irish bar across the street from the mortuary. The casket was opened for a song and toasts from friends.
Here's a toast to the Green Street Mortuary and the Green Street Mortuary Brass Band, May your service to this vibrant community continue to help them move forward after losses, and may the stirring sound of brass and drums, forever be a part of San Francisco's Chinatown.
My thanks to William Steiner, Lisa Pollard, John Coppola, and Vince Lateano.
Originally posted on my blog The Daily Undertaker
for the full article and photos, visit 'Funeral Rites in China Town' on The Daily Undertaker blog.