Immigration of the Dead
Rather than fly to China to visit their departed loved ones, a growing number of Chinese Americans are opting to bring their family members’ remains to the U.S.
One spring day in 1987, Jieyuan Ouyang, 37, boarded a flight from Hong Kong to New York City carrying a black suitcase. The suitcase was light, but to Ouyang, it seemed like she was carrying the weight of the world.
Ouyang, an acupuncturist from New York City, held the suitcase carefully to avoid any sudden and jolting movement. Inside the suitcase, there was a plastic bag. Inside the bag were the bone ashes of her father-in-law and mother-in-law.
Her husband, Peter Yan, who was a salesman for a Chinese company in New York, asked her to bring the bone ashes from his hometown of Yanping in Guangdong Province to New York City. He and Ouyang had decided to settle in the U.S. and raise their family here; Mr. and Mrs. Yan knew that they would rarely go back to visit China from then on.
Over the past 30 years, a growing number of Chinese immigrants, like Mr. and Mrs. Yan, are bringing over the remains of their loved ones to be reburied here. One community leader who has aided families in transferring their ancestral graves in the U.S. labeled this trend, the “immigration of the dead.”
“I Helped My Father Fulfill His Dream”
Peter Yan, 66, gently brushed off the dust of a metal cinerary casket siting on top of a cabinet in the living room of their rented apartment in Brooklyn. After his wife brought his parents’ ashes to New York, Yan placed them inside a round 6-by-9-by -6 inch casket and placed it up high so that their children would not be able to reach it.
In recent years though, uncertainty has crept inside Yan’s mind, — a feeling that Yan said has grown stronger every year. “I will die one day, and this [leaving the casket with ash bones in a rented apartment] will be a problem,” Yan said.
One month ago, Yan had a chance to visit Cypress Hills Cemetery, the first non-sectarian, non-denominational cemetery corporation organized in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City. The cemetery is run as a not-for-profit organization. Its proximity to their apartment – the cemetery is located along Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn – made Yan feel that it is an ideal place for his parents’ final resting place.
More importantly, the cemetery built a trapezoid-shaped section similar to the ones in Hong Kong’s cemeteries. Yan plans to buy a small plot that will be big enough to house the ashes of his parents, as well as his and his wife’s when the time comes.
It was in 1982 that Peter Yan came to America via Hong Kong because of a job opportunity here. He sent his parents, who were living with him in Hong Kong, back to their Guangdong Province hometown just before he left for the U.S.
“My parents were old. It was better for them to spend the rest of their senior years in our hometown instead of living by themselves in Hong Kong,” Yan recalled. By the end of 1984, Yan’s parents had successively passed away and their remains were buried in Yanping.
“After working here in the U.S. for several years, I decided to live here. So I asked my wife to go back to China to bring my parents here. My hope is that they can rest in peace here, and we can be together after we die,” Yan said.
For Yan, there is another reason for wanting to bring his parents’ remains to the U.S. “My father always wanted to migrate to America when he was young. He tried twice but failed. I hope I can help fulfill his dream this way,” he said, with a wide smile on his face.
“We May Even Play Mahjong Together”
Because there’s great reverence for departed loved ones in Chinese culture, Chinese families visit their dead ancestors in cemeteries during two festivals – the Double Ninth Festival in the fall and Qing Ming Festival in spring. These festivals are opportune times for families to remember the dead and to show respect and love for their dearly departed. During these festivals, whole families sweep the graves of their ancestors.
However, as many Chinese immigrants in America grow older, they find it hard to fly back to China for these festivals and visit their departed loved ones. Eddie Chau, the head consultant of Lin Sing Association, one of the biggest Chinese associations in New York City, said that in recent years, he has witnessed a trend that he described as the “immigration of the dead.” He said he has noticed an increase in Chinese Americans who went to Lin Sing Association asking about how to bring their deceased relatives’ ashes to America.
“Many Chinese Americans have grown older and can no longer embark on long-distance flights to China.”
Because Chinese immigrants can bring their relatives’ or ancestors’ ashes to America without notifying the Chinese Consulate General, and cemeteries usually don’t track the numbers of “dead immigrants” buried, there is no official record about how many Chinese rebury their relatives in America. Chao Ma, a Chinese consulate officer, said that the Chinese Consulate General in New York doesn’t have any data related to “immigration of the dead.” In other words, Chinese immigrants can bring in their relatives’ or ancestors’ ashes to America without notifying the Consulate.
Anthony Russo, CEO of Cypress Hills Cemetery, said the cemetery does not keep records of bodies brought from China for reburial at the cemetery. But he acknowledged that it is a growing trend within the Chinese American community.
According to Chau of the Lin Sing Association, there are two main reasons for the emergence of this trend.
“One, many Chinese Americans have grown older and can no longer embark on long-distance flights to China. Two, the connection between the second- and third- generation of Chinese immigrants and their ancestors is not strong, and many of second- or third- generation Chinese immigrants seem to have lost the tradition of sweeping the graves.” Chau said, adding that the older generation wants to bridge the gap by bringing the remains of the older members of their families here to the U.S.
In 2015, Connie Chan’s husband died from sudden cardiac arrest in in Shanghai. Mr. and Mrs. Chan are both U.S. citizens, but had been living in Shanghai, where they have legal permanent resident status. Mrs. Chan then decided to go back to the U.S. last fall. She asked Chau to help her bring her husband’s ashes here to the U.S.
“I have always been thinking about bringing my husband here. I’m getting older. I am no longer able to make the long-distance flight to China often to visit him and to sweep his grave,” Chan said. “I can ask my relatives in China to do that for me. But after they die, none of the next generation will do that for me, even if I send them money to do that.”
Chan learned about Lin Sing Association from a friend, who told her that the group helps bring in the remains of departed dear ones to the U.S. for reburial. She then decided to see how it works.
Through Chau, Chan attended the Double Ninth Festival grave-sweeping event last September. The event was hosted by Hoy Ping Association, another Chinese association of people who came from Hoy Ping, a small city in central south Guangdong.
“If my husband and I, our relatives, and friends are buried together, we may even be able to play mahjong together,” she said with a soft laugh.
The association commissioned four buses to shuttle some 100 members to Ewing Church Cemetery and Mausoleum in New Jersey.
It was a sunny but windy day. It was a festive event with lots of food – there was a roasted suckling pig, chopped cold boiled chicken, fruits, and some traditional Chinese items that are used as offerings to the dead.
After a short ceremony, those who were there started walking to their respective families’ tombs. Some burned incense and spirit money, some did weeding around the tombs, and some put fruit and meat on plates and wine on glasses in front of the tombs. They kneeled and prayed, wishing eternal peace for their departed loved ones, and asked the departed to bless them, the living ones.
The crowd then gathered together and made the offering. Soon, voices in Cantonese and laughter filled the air. Several men cut the roast pig into smaller, bite-sized pieces, while some women put pieces of roasted pork meats and fruits in plates and distributed them around.
Chan, meanwhile, stood by herself and was deep in meditation. After the event, she told Chau that she had made up her mind; she would bring her husband’s ashes to America and buy a cemetery plot for her and her when her time comes.
“We’ll enter a new world when we die. Who knows what it is going to be like? Maybe it is the same as the real world. If my husband and I, our relatives, and friends are buried together, we may even be able to play mahjong (a traditional Chinese four-player game) together,” she said with a soft laugh.
From “Falling Leaves Returning to Their Roots” to “Taking Roots Where They Reside”
“Chinese immigrants’ attitude are changing,” Chau commented. “From ‘falling leaves returning to their roots,’ now it’s ‘taking roots where they reside.’”
Many Chinese immigrants, dating back to the early 1900s, traditionally preferred to go back to China to spend the rest of their lives, said Chau, who has lived in Chinatown for over 30 years. At that time, overseas Chinese were able to buy a piece of land in their hometowns and wanted to be buried there when they died.
“In addition, many Chinese came here to the U.S. alone, as laborers. They wanted to go back to China when they became old because they had no family here. Their families were in China,” Chau said.
“Now it is different. Many Chinese who come here to work brought their families here. Their children and grandchildren won’t go back to China. So they choose to die here and be buried here.”
Chan agreed. Born in Indonesia, she was forced to move to Hong Kong and throughout Mainland China to escape anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia. “My life is like a journey of a refugee,” she said. “I have been to so many places: Hong Kong, Fuzhou, Beijing and finally settled here in America. I don’t want to travel any more. If my husband were buried here, I could visit him more often.”
Linda Qiu, 64, is planning to bring the ashes of her father-in-law and mother-in-law from Guangzhou to New York next year. She heard about what Yan and his wife did and thought it would be a good idea to rebury her father-in-law and mother-in-law in America. She bought two burial lots in Cypress Hills Cemetery. “I used to ask my relatives in China to help me sweep the graves, but as my kids grow older and older, they go back to China less often. I hope I can sweep the graves with them here in the future.”
Qiu also mentioned that in the past, Chinese people preferred burial to cremation because of their belief in Buddhism’s samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. They believed that keeping a full body after death could allow the deceased to be reincarnated unhindered. Now, less and less people cling to such traditional thoughts. Cremation becomes more acceptable, and it is easier for people to bring ashes to America,” Qiu said.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are no requirements for bringing in cremated remains to the United States. Although airlines themselves might impose restrictions on transporting human ashes, they still allow cremated remains onboard flights.
Yan and his wife Ouyang visited Cypress Hills this April, wanting to explore the possibility of buying a burial lot. “I have been thinking about it,” Yan said. “I won’t push my children to sweep graves for us in the future. If they have time, they can come visit us. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter. My wife and I used to say that we wanted our ashes scattered at sea. Now we’ve found a good place for our final resting place, together with my parents.”