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Asian Ancestors Brought to America - 2002-10-02

More than 10 million people of Asian descent live in the United States. Many have sponsored family members from Asia to join them as immigrants. Some are also bringing departed family members to a final resting place in their new country.

It is a small but growing trend. Asian immigrants are asking U.S. funeral directors to ship the remains of their loved ones for reburial.

Henry Kwong deals with many such requests. He is general manager of the Universal Chung Wah funeral home in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra. "In Chinese tradition, the family is the most important unit of their life. So they always try to have the whole family together. And not only that, but sometimes have the in-laws together too," Mr. Kwong said.

This is true in death as well as life, according to Mr. Kwong.

His funeral business serves a mixed population of Asian immigrants, which is concentrated in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles, such as Alhambra and Monterey Park. He says that, increasingly, customers are asking to have their departed loved ones join them. "All Asians, but primarily Chinese and Vietnamese and Laos and Cambodians, but mainly Chinese," Mr. Kwong said.

Winston Yang teaches Asian studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. He says that as middle-aged Asian immigrants get older, they start to think about making funeral arrangements.

"People buy burial sites while they are in their 40s and 50s. Their parents died in China, they want to bring their ashes to the United States and bury together with themselves," Professor Yang said.

He is no exception. An immigrant from Taiwan, he is now in his 60s and he intends to bring the remains of his parents to New Jersey when he buys a family burial plot.

He sees two factors behind the trend to relocate the deceased family members. One is the Confucian concept of filial piety, or respect for one's parents. "Filial piety means respect and responsibility to your parents, to your great-grand-parents, to your grandparents, because these are the very people who brought you to this world, who educated you, who helped you grow and succeed in society," Mr. Yang said.

Professor Yang says immigrants who observe East Asian traditions visit the grave sites of their ancestors twice a year, at a springtime festival called Ching Ming and a fall observance called the "autumn remembrance."

Clifford Yee of Cypress Lawn Memorial Park near San Francisco says the tradition of visiting family graves is carried on by Asian immigrants in his city. "And they go out there to clean the grave, wash the monument, and offer food and floral tributes to the deities as well as to their loves ones that have passed away," Mr. Yee said.

Mr. Yee's funeral home in Colma, California, gets at least one request a month from immigrants who want to relocate their ancestors. The Rose Hills funeral company in Los Angeles get nearly 30.

Mr. Yee says the trend peaked just before the return of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, when Hong Kong immigrants worried about possible restrictions that could prevent them from returning to their homeland.

Asia scholar Winston Yang says the trend will continue because most immigrants to the United States have come here to stay.

"Very few people go back to China or even go back to Taiwan for the rest of their life. Once they have come to the United States, they want to settle here because of the better life here, better economic prospects and better education for their children," Mr. Yang said.

Professor Yang says few Asian Americans can travel to Asia each year to perform their filial duties, so more are bringing departed loved ones to America to join them.