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Laid to Rest Again--in a New Land

Many immigrants, often Asian, are retrieving relatives' remains from homelands to be reburied in U.S. This makes it easier to honor ancestors, and symbolizes that America is now the family home.

December 02, 1998|LARRY GORDON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When he gave up a Pomona cauliflower farm and moved back to his native China for family reasons in 1925, Gin Gee Tong figured he would return to Southern California one day.

But U.S. restrictions against Chinese immigration blocked an escape from war and revolution. Tortured by the new Communist regime, he died a broken man in 1952, buried at first without even a coffin in an unmarked grave near Guangzhou.

He ultimately did return to California this autumn, evidence of a growing custom among immigrant families of moving deceased relatives' remains to the United States. Such transfers can sever the families' remaining emotional and physical ties to the old country, while symbolizing that America is now home.

Tong's recently cremated remains and those of five other relatives were delivered from China in marble urns by air cargo and truck to a son's hillside home in the El Sereno section of Los Angeles. The urns were buried next to one another at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, an easy drive from the beloved Pomona farmland, which is now a suburban tract.

"Finally he has come back to the place he loved," said his son, Yook Chew Tong, a 72-year-old retiree who arranged shipment of the remains, which include those of his mother, stepmother, two brothers and a sister-in-law.

"I finally can do something for them so they can rest in peace. So I feel good about that," added Tong, who, after escaping to Hong Kong, immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1950s.

Transfers of remains from overseas graves to California are becoming so common that they now apparently outnumber instances of sending immigrants' remains back to their homelands for burial, according to funeral directors and county health departments' records.

Definitive statewide or nationwide statistics on the practice are not kept. But Asian families clearly are leading the trend so they can more easily fulfill cultural and religious obligations to visit parents' and grandparents' grave sites on memorial days and birthdays.

"They want to pay respects without the long commute," said Loyal Ekholm, an administrator at Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo.

That yearning to honor ancestors, and to have their remains close at hand, overcomes old taboos against disturbing graves. It compels families to travel to China, Hong Kong, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar and bring back cremated ashes, often in carry-on luggage like souvenirs.

Some then say they have little reason to visit their native country again.

Don Nakanishi, director of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center, described the transfers as "a very clear sign of an intent to really sink one's roots down here in America. No question about that."

Henry Kwong, manager of Universal Chung Wah Funeral Directors, with offices in Alhambra and Los Angeles' Chinatown, agreed. "They feel they will be settling in the United States, and they don't think they will be going back anymore," he said.

Kwong estimated that he helps arrange about one transfer of remains a week from Asia.

Political Changes Abroad Raise Fears

Political changes overseas are a factor. Several years before the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong to mainland China's control, fears about the change set off a flurry of such reburials, said Rose Hills official Merrill Mefford. Continuing worries about the future of Taiwan and Korea have prompted others.

Sometimes, practical issues are paramount. The elderly fear that the younger generations will forget to send graveyard upkeep fees to the old country. Or families learn that a cemetery is being moved--or worse, paved over for a real estate development, as occurred recently in Singapore.

"We don't mind paying taxes as long as we are alive," said a Laguna Hills man whose parents and grandparents were buried in a private plot in Taiwan. "But when we are gone, nobody's going to take care of it."

The man, a former Taiwanese military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity, recently moved four urns from Taiwan to Live Oak Memorial Park in Monrovia and paid for perpetual maintenance.

Some families say that they had to spread money around the homeland to successfully retrieve the remains. Others say they faced few roadblocks.

"Usually, both sides of governments are compassionate and understand the situation," said funeral director Kwong. "Everybody has a father. Everybody has a grandfather."

The U.S. Customs Service does not require the declaration of cremated remains being brought into the country, said Mike Fleming, the agency's Los Angeles-area spokesman. If drug smuggling is suspected, the urn might be X-rayed, but Fleming could not recall any such recent incidents.

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