The Washington Cemeteries webpages reflect a special project conducted by Cassie Chinn, The Wing's Deputy Executive Director, in Winter 2016.
Honoring Those Who Went Before Us
I learned by example from my dad. Each year, like clockwork, he would go to the cemetery and pay visit to my grandparents’ side-by-side graves. Poinsettias for Christmas. Lilies for Easter. Maybe a mixed bouquet for Grandma’s birthday in the fall.
The tradition of honoring one’s ancestors by regularly visiting and caring for their gravesites harkens back to China. Some held the dead could influence the lives of the living; others believed the acts ensured the well-being of the deceased in the afterlife. Undoubtedly, most carried on longstanding values of respect for elders, and love and remembrance for family and friends.
Early on, Chinese immigrants in America – still with direct family ties in China, especially as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act that prevented their loved ones from coming and kept families separated an ocean apart – preferred final burial in their home villages in China. Their bodies might be temporarily buried in a US cemetery, but then exhumed with others and reburied in China – often through the support of Chinese American community organizations who raised money to fulfill this crucial service.
Not all were returned however. Cemeteries scattered throughout Washington reflect the early Chinese communities that once provided labor, services and businesses for the developing West. Chinese names – in English and Chinese – mark headstones. Sometimes they dot the landscape here and there; other times, distinct sections reflect segregated burial.
And what of the tradition of honoring one’s ancestors and caring for the gravesites? Some Chinese in America continue this practice in one form or another today. Each spring, the Qingming festival – replete with flowers, burning of incense and paper offerings, and even full meals – comes alive in certain locations as family members make their annual return.
Yet, some gravesites go untended. For early laborers, the Chinese community may have long moved on. For some whose headstones are solely in Chinese, cemetery records are left blank. “Unknown Chinese” or the derogatory “Unknown Chinaman” is the only testimony to them.
In Winter 2016, I set out to visit 9 cemeteries in Western Washington to help recover and remember our early Chinese American pioneers. The cemeteries included:
- Blaine Cemetery, Blaine
- Duwamish Poor Farm Cemetery, Seattle (researched only)
- Forest Memorial Garden, Olympia
- Jefferson County Cemetery, Port Townsend
- Lake View Cemetery, Seattle
- Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Seattle
- Newcastle Coal Miners’ Cemetery, Newcastle
- Sunnyside Cemetery, Coupeville
Some were more well-known for their Chinese heritage. Others were identified by linking known early Chinese communities with existing historic cemeteries. Mountain View Cemetery, Walla Walla, was also added in from materials gathered in a 2014 visit, indicating the potential other cemeteries that are beyond the Cascades and throughout the State.
We share here findings from that journey in hopes that you too might remember and honor these who have gone before us.
- Cassie Chinn, Deputy Executive Director
“Honoring the Departed” video demonstrating the Joss Burning tradition, Asian Pacific American Heritage Sites website, Wing Luke Museum.
“Death: Dying, Funerals, and Cemeteries in North America,” Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (CINARC).
“Sensitivity Issues” and “Chinese Cemeteries,” Asian American Comparative Collection.
“Chinese-American Genealogy,” by Alice Kane, American Ancestors website, New England Historic Genealogical Society.
“Leave No Trace” principles for visiting heritage sites.
“Visitor Rules of Conduct,” Lake View Cemetery, Seattle.
Chinese American Death Rituals: Respecting the Ancestors. Edited by Sue Fawn Chung and Priscilla Wegars. New York: Altamira Press, 2005.
Chinese in Washington State. Art and Doug Chin. Seattle: OCA Greater Seattle, 2013.
Reflections of Seattle’s Chinese Americans: The First 100 Years. Second Edition. Edited by Ron Chew and Cassie Chinn. Seattle: Wing Luke Museum, 2003.