Chinese Cemetery

While travelling through Auburn along State Highway 49, residents and visitors alike may notice an unassuming plot of undeveloped real estate on the east side of the highway (across from Edgewood Road) with a sign, "Chinese Cemetery."

If you've ever wondered about this, it is an historic burial site for the Chinese pioneers who came to Auburn to seek gold, work on the Transcontinental Railroad, or make a living at their own enterprises.

In this section, you can view historical documents related to the cemetery, read a brief history of Auburn's Chinese Cemetery, and learn about Chinese burial customs courtesy of an article from our friends at the "Currents" newsletter.

Although Auburn's Chinese Cemetery is not officially open to visitors, we hope to make renovations and improvements in the future to make the site a destination that is accessible to those interested in the history of the early Chinese immigrants to California.

While the cemetery is not currently open to the public, we hope to make it accessible to visitors in the future.

Image of Chinese Cemetery memorial plaque

A plaque and monument to commemorate the earliest of settlers. The tarnished plaque reads:

"The Native Sons of the Golden West are proud to give this plaque to  commemorate the final resting place of some of the earliest settlers in this area, the Chinese. For some years it wasn't the accepted practice to bury Chinese in Caucasian cemeteries, hence this location, quite separated from Auburn proper. Some where originally laid to rest here others having since been disinterred, their bones polished and shipped back to China to remain by the side of their ancestors in eternity. Erected by Parlor #59. N.S.G.W. on June 18, 1988."

Auburn, once home to thousands of Chinese laborers in the early 19th century, buried deceased laborers in a segregated Chinese Cemetery rather than in the Auburn Historic Cemetery.  Most of the Chinese laborers buried in the Chinese Cemetery were from Sze Yup, Toishan district. The Chinese Cemetery is a 2.5-acre area established in 1860, atop the area that the local Chinese called Golden Mountain. It was located about one mile outside of town limits from 1850-1870. The last recorded ceremony and burial in the cemetery was in March 1841, with the funeral of Wong Bong, a 78 year old gardener and native of China. In 1910, Charles Yue bought the Chinese Cemetery.

When the cemetery was in use, there were no known headstone engravers capable of writing Chinese; thus, the Chinese characters had to be inscribed into cement plaques. Some graves would go without headstones for weeks or months while the headstone was prepared. Multiple headstones were produced on the same day, resulting in them having the same date of death, with the actual date of death usually written in Chinese characters. Additionally, the gravestones were written in the way that Chinese was colloquially spoken rather than as gravestones were formally written in China, resulting in redundancies in the language written on them.

Chinese immigrants burned "Hell Banknotes" (gold and silver paper or cardboard that symbolized money) and the deceased’s personal effects and favorite clothing in the shrine burner (brick incinerator). This was believed to encourage a safe transit to the afterlife and to enhance the wellbeing and abundance of the departed in the afterlife. Elaborate presentations of foods such as whole pies, poultry, fruits, spirits, and joss sticks were also placed on the altar at burial. This offering of food and joss paper also signified the continuing interdependence between the deceased and their living descendants.

 

Everyone present at the funeral received a little red packet with some money. This packet was a sign of gratitude from the family of the deceased. White clothing was traditionally worn as a symbol of the dead. The number three was also significant, with many ceremonial gestures being carried out three times. The Qing Ming Festival (清明節) is the anniversary of the loved one's death, where people pay respect to the deceased by removing the weeds, tidying up and cleaning the tombstone.

Most Chinese preferred to be buried with their ancestors in their native villages in China. Graves were, therefore, only temporary and arrangements were made for the eventual return of remains to China.  Thus, the bodies had to be properly buried, exhumed, then prepared. First, the bodies were placed in a shallow grave to allow for exposure to the air, which ensured quick decay. The bodies would remain in the ground for 7 to 10 years before repatriation would occur. The Chief Scraper and gatherer of the bones of the dead would then carefully gather and place the bones on a clean cloth to dry for a few hours, remove particles of earth with a stiff wire brush, and rub the remains with a clean dry cloth. Remains were then placed in a zinc box measuring 18 inches by 10 inches, in a fetal position with thigh bones upright, and the skull placed in last. Finally, the box would be disinfected, sealed, and readied for shipment to Hong Kong, then to China. Sometimes the bones were not sent to China, but placed in clay urns for the “second burial,” in which case the bodies were placed in upright positions in the urns. The Bone Scrapers were usually members of the Chinese Benevolent Associations in San Francisco, which usually handled the repatriation process.

The cost of reinterment (reburial) was expensive for the time. However, not all individuals were repatriated to China or had a second burial. Women seldom participated  in the interment arrangements which funded the systematic removal; additionally, individuals that failed to pay for reinterment services were left in place. This practice of repatriation of the bones ceased in the 1950s.

For a long time, the Chinese Cemetery was maintained by long-time Auburn resident and businessman Frank Kee who paid a gardener to clean and repair it. After Frank Kee had his parents’ bodies removed from the cemetery, and lacking support from Placer County, he stopped maintaining the cemetery. In 1988, the Chinese Cemetery was rededicated by the Native Sons of the Golden West and recognized as a significant cultural site; an important historical resource, and a vital link to the rich Chinese American heritage of California.

 

Today, the Chinese Cemetery is marked by cement plaques with Chinese writing, the shrine burner, several depressions in the ground, mounds of dirt, and scattered ceramic, metal, and glass refuse. The shallow depressions are likely indicative of empty graves whose bodies have been exhumed and shipped to China. As of 2008, the Chinese Cemetery still contained 11 burials according to the Find A Grave website. All other remains were removed either returned to China for burial or moved to a local cemetery for reinterment

On November 10, 1881, a letter about the Chinese Graveyard was sent discussing the reinternment of several individuals.

Photos and translation of that letter are below.

Chinese Cemetery
letter

Read Part 1 >

1881 cemetery letter_first half (1).jpg

In the matter of the application of Wong Ling for permission to dis-inter the bones of certain deceased Chinese buried in the old Chinese graveyard, about two miles northerly from the town of Auburn for the purpose of forwarding such remains to China.

(Illegible) it appearing that the following named Chinese deceased have been so buried three years or more. To which Sing AH Him, Choung Lee, Man Holo, Ah Hong, Sou Loy, Sing Joy, Hong Loy Sook, Sing Kee, Joy Yuew, Song Lee, You Holo, Houg Sook, Lee Liug, Wong See, Chee Yuew, Sum Hring, Man Fook, Jin York, Joy Sing, Man Fook Hiug, Lee Choung Mow, Jack Yuew, Wong Kee.

Chinese Cemetery
letter

Read Part 2 >

1881 cemetery letter_second half (2).jpg

On motion it is ordered that the said be and is hereby granted permission to remove the bones of said deceased Chinese above named – upon the payment by said Wong Ling of such sum as may be necessary to compensate such person as the Clerk of the Board may appoint to see such removal is made and said Graveyard left in such conditions as to create no offensive nuisances.

Article republished with permission from Currents.

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