Friday, April 5, 2013


The Chicago Daily Tribune from July 28, 1891 carried an interesting article on page 3:

Chinamen Buy a Plot of Land and Will Erect a Monument.

An immense granite obelisk will soon be erected in Rosehill Cemetery to mark the graves of Chicago's Chinese dead.  The money for the monument has already been raised and a large plot of ground in Rosehill Cemetery has been purchased by the Soon On Tong Society.  

Hip Lung, the Chinese grocer, Chow Tai, the druggist, Sam Moy, the cigar manufacturer, and other wealthy Chinese of the city are at the head of the movement.  The forty-six Chinamen who were buried at Rosehill will be disinterred and laid to rest in the plot bought by the Soon On Tong Society.

Speaking of the affair last evening, Hip Lung said: "We have bought lots 1 to 52 inclusive in Sec. 6 at Rosehill for $2,392.  We paid $1300 cash and the balance will be paid in one year.  It is the intention of the society to erect on the plat a large granite shaft to cost $1,000.  The society first thought of importing a monument from China.  With this end in view, I, with Sam Moi and Chow Tai, acting as a committee from the society, went to the Custom House yesterday to ascertain what duty we would have to pay.  The duty was so high that we concluded to have it made in Chicago.  

"When the monument has been erected, the bodies of all the Chinese buried at Rosehill will be removed to our plat with appropriate ceremonies."  

In the articles of agreement, the Rosehill authorities grant the Chinese the privilege of burying their dead in accordance with the rites and customs of their religion.

They must have been successful because this article was in the Chicago Daily Tribune on August 29, 1892:

Celestials Consecrate a Memorial to Their Dead
With Strange, Weird Ceremonies They Offer Praise to Joss, and Invoke His Blessing on Their Departed Friends - Peculiar Exercises at Their House of Worship - Genral Exodus to Rosehill Cemetery - Food, Drink, and Bogus Money Laid on the Graves.

     "Joss, Joss, great is our Joss.
      Joss, without a beginning.
      Joss, without an end.
      Joss, Joss, great is out Joss."

Such was the wild, weird paean sung in the Mongolian tongue by a congregation of Chinese in a room fragrant with burning incense and spices and sandal wood at No. 323 Clark street yesterday forenoon. And as the Celestial congregation sang an orchestra of strangely attired musicians on instruments of curious make played an ear-splitting accompaniment.

It was the opening exercises attendant upon the dedication of a shrine erected by the Chinese of Chicago to the memory of their dead at Rosehill Cemetery.  At least 1,000 almond-eyed Orientals participated in the ceremonies, and it was sundown before the sacred rites were ended.

The shrine stands on the Chinese burying-ground, just west of the north entrance to the cemetery.  It is a queer-looking affair, or a style of architecture little known in Chicago, and is built of granite and granolithic.  It faces the east, and, from the base to the top of the ball, which surmounts the structure, it measures fifteen feet.  It is eight feet broad and two feet thick.  A low arched pediment forms the top, with heavy carved scrolls at the ends.  At each end is a furnace in the form of a hollow obelisk, about two feet square at the base and about eight feet high.  Near the top are two small openings.  At the base of each is an iron door and inside is an iron grating.

Set into the front of the shrine is a large square slab of granite.  On this is carved in Chinese characters the date of the erection of the structure, the fact that it was erected by the Chinese of Chicago and a short prayer for the dead.  At the base is a rectangular slab raised about a foot from the ground.  Extending from this is a curbing in the form of a semicircle, extending about six feet from the base.

West of the shrine is the ground reserved by the Chinese for their dead. It is about 150 feet long by twenty feet deep.  Moy Tong Chow, the head of the Hip Lung company, and Chan Pok Kwai, a Chinese merchant, are the trustees, in whose names the shrine and ground are held.

Ceremonies in the Joss House.

The dedicatory exercises began in the Joss house on the fifth floor of the Hip Lung Hotel, No. 323 Clark street, early yesterday morning.  As many Celestials as could crowd into the place met there, and for several hours they devoted themselves to the adoration of their chief deity, whose image occupies a place on the east side of the room.  A Chinese orchestra kept up an unearthly din most of the time, and on a bronze altar supported by a ferocious-looking dragon, incense, spices, and sandal wood were burned.  At intervals the assemblage would break forth in a wild wail or chant which, with the orchestra, made a perfect bedlam of the place.  Then the devotees of Joss would get down on their knees, placing their hands behind them and their foreheads on the floor.  

Toward noon five roasted pigs on wooden trays, several large baskets of roasted chickens, boiled ducks, rice, fruits, and pastry of Chinese make were brought in and placed before the image of Joss.  A lean Celestial, whose skin looked like parchment and whose cue and mustache were quite gray, came in .  He wore a long light blue robe and a curiously wrought bracelet on each wrist.  When he entered, the orchestra ceased its noise and the assembled worshipers became quiet.  The gray-cued individual then called upon Joss to bless the provisions and to make all the Chinese who had departed this life happy.

When he had done the meeting broke up.  The roasted pigs, chickens, ducks, and other edibles were removed to an express wagon in front of the hotel and the driver was directed to take it to Rosehill Cemetery.

After this was a small exodus from Chinatown.  Twenty-five carriages, each containing from four to six Chinamen, followed the wagon to the cemetery.  Besides these a large number took the cars over the Northwestern railway to Rosehill.  It was 2 o'clock when they reached the shrine, and for the next two hours they devoted themselves to feeding the spirits of their dead friends.  First they assembled around the nearly-erected shrine.  Fires were kindled in the obelisk furnaces at either end.  Large quantities of rice paper inscribed with messages of love and affection for the departed were burned with sandalwood and incense.  When the fires became roaring hot cigarettes, cigars, opium, rice, and Chinese sweetmeats were thrown in.

Feast Spread at the Shrine.

While this was going on the roasted pigs, ducks, chickens and boiled rice were arranged on the ledge at the foot of the shrine.  Plates and bowls were placed along the edge with plenty of chopsticks.  Rice wine and tea were poured into cups and sweet-scented tapers were burned.

When the feast for the dead had been arranged libations of rice, wine and tea were poured over the food.  Then one after another each Chinaman who had a dead friend or relative in the cemetery came forward, got down on his knees three times and each time bowed his head to earth three times, muttering a prayer as he did so.

As each one arose he took a small cup of tea or rice wine and poured it on the ground.  

This part of the ceremony over, individuals came forward and took portions of the food to the grave of some relative or friend.  Then they would arrange it, as if for eating.  The salutation performed in front of the shrine would be repeated and incense would be burned.  Bogus Chinese paper money, weighted down with stones, was left at the foot of each grave.  This done, baskets of bananas, apples, and rice cakes were brought out and scattered over the ground promiscuously.

While all this was being done many Celestials stood around laughing and talking in a most joyful manner.  There was nothing done around the graves that had the slightest suggestion of sorrow.  They appeared to consider the whole affair as a picnic.

Each grave having been duly spread with a good square meal, the fores in the furnaces were replenished and the five roasted pigs and all the ducks and chickens were gathered up, loaded into the express wagon, and brought back to the city.  On returning to Chinatown the feeders of the dead were joyously received by those who had remained at home.  They gathered in the various Mongolian resorts and ended the day in feasting on the chickens, ducks and pigs that had been spread out for the dead at the cemetery.   

It turns out that all was not tranquil in paradise.  Here's a follow up article from the Chicago Daily Tribune of August 3, 1896:

Monument in Rosehill Cemetery Will Be Rebuilt to Placate Him.

A superstitious fear has caused the Chinese to plan radical alterations to their monument or altar in Rosehill Cemetery.  There has been an unusual death rate among the Celestials of late and it was decided that it was due to a displeasure Joss had taken at their monument.

Accordingly, despite the fact that it has been but recently erected, and at a cost of several hundred dollars, it has been decided to practically tear it down and build one without the features which they believe have provoked Joss' displeasure.

Sam Moy and several of his countrymen visited John Anderson, the monument dealer at the entrance of Rosehill the other day,  and submitted plans for a reconstruction of the monument.  Its commanding height, twelve feet, they thought a leading reason for Joss' evident displeasure, so they decided to cut it down to four feet.

But they regarded as a more potent cause of their trouble the presence of three drainage holes in the bottom of the basin directly in front of the structure, and insisted they be closed and a hole opened on the side of the basin.

Did that take care of the problem?  The next mention in the Chicago Daily Tribune of the Chinese plot at Rosehill came a little over one month later on September 21, 1896:

Chinese Colony in South Clark Street
Pays Mongolian Funeral Honors 
To a Departed Countryman.

There was a Chinese funeral in South Clark street yesterday, and now the remains of Chow Tsu are at rest at the foot of the Chinese monument in Rosehill Cemetery - the "new" monument that has no "hoo doo" to prejudice the welfare of spirits repose under its shadow.  

The funeral of Chow Tsu was conducted with due celestial ceremony at 2 o'clock yesterday afternoon in a double basement at Nos. 821 and 823 South Clark street.  There was a feast of boiled rice and young pig, in which two or three score  of the countrymen of Chow Tsu participated, and then followed the burial rite set down in the orthodox liturgy of the followers of Confucius.

The whole aim of the celebrants in the weird ceremonial seemed to be to scare away the evil spirits supposed to be bent of capturing the shade of Chow Tsu.

As the casket was carried to the hearse there was a beating of tom-toms, strumming of Chinese lutes and fiddles, and blowing of discordant horns.  There was also a burning of incense and of long red manilla paper prayers.      

More prayers were used in the procession.  Some were burned and others were scattered along the route by which the procession traveled to Rosehill.  This was done to keep the Evil One from stealing the body, as well as to leave a trail by which the spirit of the dead might retrace its steps to the abodes of the living.  

The utility of the printed prayer was not yet exhausted.  In Chow Tsu's hands were folded long red petitions to the deity together with a small sum of money in coin.

Thus equipped, all that was mortal of Chow Tsu was committed to earth.  At the grave there was more playing on weird instruments, more burning of incense and prayers, more silent mummery of which none but the participants knew the significance further than that it symbolized the departure from this life of Chow Tsu.  Then the body was lowered from sight, earth was piled over the coffin, more prayers and incense made the air hazy by their combustion and all was over.  

"Don' know."  That was all any of the Chinamen in Clark street would tell about it after it was all over.  That was their answer in almost every case to questions as to who the dead man was, his age, or any other matter connected with the funeral.  There was one exception - one man who would talk.  He did not consent to do so until he held a long parley with others at the basement store of Quong Hop Lung, and they finally agreed that  he might with impunity relax and break the cordon of silence that had surrounded the affair.

This man said the funeral was that of Chow Tsu, who was forty years old; that he came to California from China when 18 years old, and had lived in Chicago for the last sixteen years.  He said Chow Tsu had no recognized business or vocation.  He was simply a Chinaman.  He was single and had no relatives in this country except as all are related in one great family among the Mongolians.  He died of consumption last Monday, and that was all - all but the funeral.

In all my trips to Rosehill I have never seen anything like the Chinese monument mentioned in the articles.  But, since I had never specifically looked for it, maybe I had just missed it.  So the other day I set out for Section 6 at Rosehill to see what was left of the Chinese shrine/monuments/burials.

To my surprise, there was no trace of any Chinese monument, shrine, or tombstones of any Chinese in Section 6 of Rosehill Cemetery.

The few tombstones that were there all had Anglo-Saxon names on them.  What happened to the graves of the Chinese buried at Rosehill?  What happened to the elaborate monument to Joss that had been constructed in Section 6 of Rosehill?  As it turns out, the Chinese were asked to leave Rosehill and take their monument with them.  You see, the use of the graves for Chinese burials at Rosehill was only temporary.  Ultimately the bones would be dug up, packed and shipped to China as explained in another article from the Chicago Daily Tribune:

Chinese Bones To Be Dug Up and Sent back to China

No Rest for the Departed Celestial So Long as His Remains Lie Buried in the Soil of the White Heathen - Public Ceremonies to Attend the Resurrection of Forty Fortunate Corpses Under the Direction of Well Paid Chinese "Coroner" - Great Care in Packing and Shipping.

Bones of Chinamen are valued in China.  Now matter how worthless the owner of the bones may have been when alive, as soon as he is dead his remains are sacred and must take up their final resting place in no spot outside the Flowery Kingdom.  When a Chinaman dies in a foreign land he does so with the full understanding that some time in the future His brethren will carry him back to the land whence he came. In Chicago yesterday work was commenced on the sacred duty of exhuming the bones of a number of Chinese who have been dead six years or more.  

Owing to the rough weather this work, which was to have begun last Saturday, was put off until yesterday, but nothing of much importance was accomplished beyond securing the necessary Board of Health permit.  An inspector from this department was sent with Sam Moy to Rosehill, where the dead men now rest, to see that the exhuming process was done according to law.  As soon as the weather permits, the work will be carried on in earnest and the Chinese bones will be prepared for their final grave.

Must Be Buried in Their Native Land.

The Chinese custom is to take up the dead after they have been buried six years or more and send them to their friends in China, where once a year a celebration in memory of them takes place.  On that occasion the graves are decorated with flowers and the dead receive offerings of roasted chicken, which, however, is afterwards eaten by the living with many wishes that the departed could be there to enjoy it with them.     

Bodies have been exhumed at San Francisco, Portland, and other places in America and sent across the ocean, but the ceremony has never been performed in Chicago.  The mortal remains of nearly 100 subjects of the Emperor and Son of the Sun rest in Rosehill Cemetery. Some of them have been under the ground longer than the requisite period of six years, and their bones are to be disinterred, carefully sealed in tin boxes, and shipped to the land of their nativity, where relations will receive and care for them ever afterwards.

To Be Exhumed by the "Chinese Coroner".

The work will be carried on under direction of an official from San Francisco known as the Chinese Coroner.  His name is Grin Joy Poo.

The Chinese quarter is greatly interested in the undertaking chiefly because the custom has never been put into effect here and the strange rites celebrated in connection therewith promises some diversion to the Chinese whose monotonous routine of daily existence on South Clark street makes a little variety welcome.  The money for expenses is all collected, the tin boxes and heavy wooden cases have been made, the undertaker is here, and everything is in readiness.

To an American the ceremonies will be novel and interesting.  Before a grave is opened, four lighted candles will be placed, two at the head and two at the foot, and kept burning until the bones of the dead have been taken out.  The undertaker, standing at the head, will recite a few incantations, and perform a short religious service.  He will be dressed in the robes of his office, which are described as being gorgeous in gold trimmings and embroidery.  After the bones have been lifted from the grave, they will be dipped into a kettle or jar of boiling oil, made of aromatic herbs and roots, and then carefully wiped off with soft cotton cloths and dried.

It is claimed that the hot oil soaks into the skeletons and preserves them so that they will last thousands of years.  Dr. Gee Wo Chan, who is a veracious man, said yesterday that the bones of some of his ancestors have been kept in good condition 6,000 years.

Remains Carefully Packed in Tin.

Further preparation consists of the wrapping of each bone in a heavy piece of muslin and labeling it.  The tin box is made just large enough to hold the skull and trunk of the body intact.  The smaller pieces can be packed inside and around these.  If a single bone or sliver of a bone is missing it must be accounted for in a written certificate signed by the undertaker.  Six or eight of these tin boxes will be placed in the wooden case for shipment.  Each box will bear a card, giving the name of the man who once wore flesh on them, as well as the names of the persons to whom it is consigned.  When it is received by them the bones will be taken out, examined to see that they are right, placed in a stone jar made expressly for the purpose, and buried.

The money for expenses was collected by subscription among resident Chinamen.  Part of the expense goes to paying the undertaker, who receives $10 a body for his services.

The management of Rosehill Cemetery was so horrified by the Chinese practices of disinterring bodies and boiling the bones that they passed a resolution that plots at Rosehill could only be bought by Caucasians.  Then they asked the Chinamen to dig up their bodies and take them out of Rosehill along with their monument to Joss.  The refusal to sell cemetery plots to non-Caucasians was still in effect as reported by the Chicago Daily Tribune on September 10, 1944:

by The Rev. John Evans.

John B. Vercoe, vice president and superintendent of Rosehill Cemetery, yesterday explained the refusal of the cemetery to permit the body of Tom Y. Chan, Chinese leader, to be buried there.  Many religious leaders protested the cemetery's quarter-century old ruling which, Vercoe said, had nothing to do with race but with practical situations.

Vercoe said that altho the cemetery had bought back many single graves from Chinese owners, there are still some lots owned by them. If the Chan family owned one of those lots (a lot contains two or more graves) then Chan could be buried in Rosehill beside his first wife, Mary.  The Chan family, however, said that they owned only a single burial plot where Mary Chan is buried.  Rosehill has a rule against burying two bodies in one grave, as is done in some cemeteries, Vercoe said.

Fact Lacking, He Says.

In replying to criticism of the cemetery based on the refusal to permit Chan to be buried near his first wife, Vercoe pointed to the fact that "no one gave us either Mrs. Chan's first name or the date of her death. With 150,000 persons buried in Rosehill we must have at least those two facts."

"Wew have complete records of all persons buried here, but we have to have this information in order to find the facts in the records," Vercoe said.  "We found one person by the name of Chan was buried here about 20 years ago, but being unfamiliar with Chinese, we do not know whether it was a man or a woman.  If the matter was so important, why did not someone supply us with these two bits of necessary information?"

Explains Race Not Involved.

"When the cemetery limited the sale of graves or lots to Caucasians it had nothing to do with race, but with quaint burial customs of the non-Christian Chinese.  They often disinterred their dead to burn the flesh from the bones over a charcoal grill; polish the bones, and pack them into tin boxes for shipment to China for final burial.  If it had been a matter of cremation it would have been simple.  But they had to have the bones.  Adjoining lot owners protested the scenes and the stench."

"The cemetery simply faced a practical situation that had to be changed.  We are not a bit sorry about the decision and we are not offering apologies for it."

So there you have it.  You can just imagine the horror of nearby lot owners who stopped by for a cemetery visit only to encounter the Chinese Coroner burning the flesh from bones taken from a nearby open grave.

Obviously all that has changed now.  Deed restrictions like those that only permit sales to Caucasians have been declared illegal.  A drive around Rosehill today would reveal the graves of many Chinese, but in all my visits there (and there have been hundreds over the years) I have never seen anyone boiling bones - Chinese or any other.  This is an interesting story of how ethnic burial customs change over time as immigrants are assimilated into the customs of America.  But I can tell you for a fact, that there is not a trace of any Chinaman - living or dead - in Section 6 of Rosehill Cemetery.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this story about Chinese burial customs of over 100 years ago and how it was news in Chicago. It's fascinating to think my great-grandparents were likely reading all about this in the newspaper.