CRM Journal

Book Review

Chinese American Death Rituals: Respecting The Ancestors

Edited by Sue Fawn Chung and Priscilla Wegars. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005; ix + 307 pp; illustrations, maps; paper $34.95.


A generation ago, material culture studies about death typically concentrated upon headstones. For example, Allan I. Ludwig's The Graven Images of Early New England, 1653-1815, published first in 1959, pioneered the subject. As these examinations have added to our understanding of the myriad ways society reveres the deceased, scholars have given an increasing emphasis not only upon mortuary art, but also upon less permanent elements concerning how we remember the dead and what we do for the dead in the immediate aftermath.(1)

Chinese American Death Rituals: Respecting the Ancestors joins the growing body of literature on the material culture of death that has emerged during the past four decades. Not surprisingly, the book appears as scholarship has increasingly focused upon the role under-represented ethnic groups have played in shaping the American landscape. The editors include eight essays written from a variety of disciplines, including history, archeology, and anthropology. In their introduction, Chung and Wegars write that:

Asian ethnic expressions regarding death differ from Western traditions. Until recently, little has been known about Chinese American funerary rituals and practices that illustrate the weltanschauung of the people. Shaped by individual beliefs, customs, religion, and environment, Chinese Americans have resolved the tensions between assimilation into the mainstream culture and their strong Chinese heritage in a variety of ways…. The purpose of this work is to describe and analyze cultural retention and transformation in rituals after death.(2)

While space will not allow a thorough description of each essay, all are worthy of mention here. In "'What We Didn't Understand': A History of Chinese Death Ritual in China and California," social historian and archeologist Wendy L. Rouse describes how death rituals that began in ancient China eventually emerged in 19th-century California. Particularly fascinating is the notion that fengshui was originally a concept applied to both burials and houses so that these would be placed in harmony with nature. Handed down over the centuries, funerary traditions obviously evolved, but they provided a foundation for the customs that would later appear in the Golden State.

External forces would also influence burial practices in the new land. According to Rouse, "at the height of discriminatory practices against the Chinese, Californians began adopting laws designed to further restrict traditional burial practices. Calling the Chinese hazardous to public health, many towns forced them to bury their dead away from the common burying ground." Rouse also authors the chapter "Archaeological Excavations at Virginiatown's Chinese Cemeteries," which focuses on two cemeteries in a California mining town, where she found physical evidence of how Chinese burials were segregated from Caucasian burials, also followed fengshui principles.

In the essay "On Dying American: Cantonese Rites for Death and Ghost Spirits in an American City," Paul G. Chace, a social anthropologist and archeologist, describes the festivals and rituals practiced in Marysville, California. Some of these rites center around death or remembering the spirits of ancestors. Admittedly, these rites have become Americanized over time.

In "Venerate these Bones: Chinese American Funerary and Burial Practices as Seen in Carlin, Elko County, Nevada," editor Chung, who is associate professor of history at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, teams up with Fred P. Frampton, an archeologist with the U.S. Forest Service, and Timothy W. Murphy, who is an archeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Through their research, the three contributors reveal the probable identities of three of thirteen men buried in Carlin prior to 1924.

In "Respecting the Dead: Chinese Cemeteries and Burial Practices in the Interior Pacific Northwest," Terry Abraham, head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Idaho, joins editor Wegars, founder of the university's Asian American Comparative Collection, to discuss the Chinese cemeteries in Idaho and Oregon. As with California examples, fengshui principles were applied in the siting of graves. Equally fascinating is the authors' finding that Euro-Americans were sometimes buried alongside their Chinese spouses.

"Remembering Ancestors in Hawai'i," by Chung and Reiko Neizman, is yet another geographic context for the influence Chinese death rituals had upon a remote outpost of the U.S. Chinese laborers immigrated to the islands to work in sugar cane fields prior to U.S. annexation. By 1892, the Chinese association Lin Yee Chung established the Manoa Chinese Cemetery, the largest and best known of Hawai'i's Chinese cemeteries. According to Chung and Neizman, who at the time of the book's publication was a candidate in the University of Hawai'i master's program in library and information sciences, "cemeteries in Hawai'i reinforce the connection between the living and the dead in accordance with Chinese beliefs."

In "The Chinese Mortuary Tradition in San Francisco Chinatown," anthropologist Linda Sun Crowder describes Chinese rites such as funeral processions, which continue to be held in Chinatown. As with several other contributors, she notes that "reverence for ancestors, formalized in Confucianism, is the cornerstone of Chinese cultural belief, social structure, and religious practice." In "Old Rituals in New Lands: Bringing the Ancestors to America," historical archeologist Roberta S. Greenwood rounds out the book's eight essays with a fascinating account of how the Chinese tradition of exhumation and repatriation of cremated or skeletal remains to the Chinese homeland has evolved so that such remains are now being brought from China to the U.S.

It is worth mentioning that the book lacks a concluding chapter that ties everything together. Some of the visual aids were a bit unsatisfying. For example, many of the black and white photographs found in Chapter 7 are rather washed out. On the other hand, the historic views found in Chapter 1 will be of tremendous interest to those specializing in Chinese American history and culture. The book includes an extensive bibliography, though it pertains more to the references cited in the essays rather than publications recommended for further reading.

Despite these shortcomings, Chung and Wegars have assembled an impressive collection of essays, although each stands on its own as a separate treatment. Chinese American Death Rituals: Respecting the Ancestors is a valuable addition to the increasingly important subject of death ways. This highly readable work should be of tremendous interest to archeologists, ethnographers, folklorists, landscape historians, cultural geographers, and architectural historians.

Jeffrey L. Durbin
Advisory Council on Historic Preservation



1. Typical of this new direction is Holly Everett's Roadside Crosses in Contemporary Memorial Culture (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2002). A recent example of the earlier focus on mortuary art may be found in New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones: History in the Landscape by Richard Francis Veit and Mark Nonestied (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).

2. For an analysis of Chinese death ways in a completely different geographic context, see Tong Chee Kiong's Chinese Death Rituals in Singapore (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004). Also see Gary Laderman's Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) for a cross-cultural comparison of how different ethnic groups (including the Chinese) treated the dead in America during the past century.