California changed forever on January 24, 1848. That was the day James W. Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The Gold Rush brought another treasure to northern California, as a large group of Asian, particularly Chinese, immigrants came to the area as more and more railroads were built. Today, San Francisco has the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. It’s why you may have heard San Francisco called “Gum San,” which is Chinese for “gold mountain.” The Chinese have contributed so much of their rich culture to the American melting pot, including their strong emphasis on family and respect for elders.
Traditionally, the Chinese view their parents and grandparents as the vital nucleus of the family – the power cell of the family molecule that everyone revolves around and grows from. Grandparents dote on their grandchildren, viewing them as their path to the future. The intergenerational connection is powerful. Anyone who has roamed the streets of Chinatown knows it’s not uncommon to see four generations of a family walking or working together. What’s lesser known is how these values impact their funeral practices.
Children and grandchildren often use whatever success they achieve to care for the parents and grandparents later in life, so funerals are very important to many Chinese families. Many Chinese also believe that if they give their deceased relative a fitting tribute, their loved one will respect and protect them along with future generations of the family. We see these values and beliefs demonstrated in the families we work with at Cypress Lawn. For over 100 years, it’s been our pleasure to help them express their love and respect through planning a meaningful and unique tribute that will bring honor to their deceased loved one and their whole family.
In true Bay Area fashion, the services Cypress Lawn arranges for many of our Chinese families are a rich melding of cultures and religious expression. Many choose to have a night visitation, where loved ones give offerings of ceremonial incense, paper monies, and even a food tray to the deities in the next levels of life. The next day, the same family might have us bring in a Christian minister or Catholic priest to say prayers and read a eulogy in two languages. Other families might choose to follow more traditional Buddhist funeral practices. Their services are multi-faceted and quite beautiful, and Cypress Lawn is able to accommodate them all.
Most people who attend Chinese funerals at Cypress Lawn will wear a black band around their arm. Chinese families will typically give the guests a red envelope with either a coin or a dollar bill in it for good luck and a white envelope that has a piece of candy in it to take away the bitter taste of death. They also do not put pictures of the deceased loved one on the casket. One particularly interesting practice is that of joss paper burning, where paper and paper-mâché items are burned at funerals to ensure the deceased has that item in the afterlife.
How much we have to learn from each other, as we celebrate each other’s differences! It’s one of the reasons Cypress Lawn offers such a variety of funeral personalization options –traditional customs infuse a funeral with meaning and value. Rituals and ceremonies can provide great comfort to those who are grieving, especially when it connects them to thousands of years of heritage and tradition.
Have you attended the funeral of a person from another culture or religious tradition? What aspects of the service really stood out for you?