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Chinatown Decoded: What Happens During a Chinatown Funeral?

A guide from the Green Street Mortuary.

Green Street Band

Green Street Band 

 

Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.  

If you need a funeral in Chinatown, there’s only one place to go: Green Street Mortuary. Originally serving Italian Catholics, today it is patronized almost exclusively by Chinese Americans. The mortuary’s general manager, Bob Yount, explains some of his guests’ unique rituals.

The Buddhist chanting: Observant Buddhist families bring monks to the funeral to chant hymns. It’s not a sing-along, Yount says, but an opportunity for reflection that is often paired with eulogies and services.

The creature comforts: At the grave, members of the funeral party sometimes burn paper figurines to symbolically gift items like houses, cars, servants, and even flat-screen TVs to the deceased. The items represented by the burned paper are believed to have been transmitted for use in the afterlife.

The sweeteners: At the end of the funeral, two family members pass out a white envelope and a red one to each guest. The red, like those given on the Lunar New Year, holds a small amount of money (with larger denominations for particularly honored mourners). The white one contains a quarter, which must be spent during the same day, and a piece of lucky candy, giving guests something sweet to balance out the sadness.

The marching band: The best-known element of a Chinatown funeral is the procession along Stockton Street, in which the coffin is preceded by a 10-piece brass band playing Christian hymns like ”Amazing Grace.“ Yount follows the band in a car that prominently displays a picture of the deceased—a variation on the Chinese tradition of parading through the village with a large scroll bearing his or her name. Then comes the hearse and the mourners, who, once the procession is over, go to the cemetery—usually in Colma, which has six Chinese-language cemeteries.

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What Happens During a Chinatown Funeral?

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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