By Juliana Barbassa
The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — Traffic along the teeming streets of Chinatown came to a standstill: death was parading by, heralded by the clear, sharp notes of a brass band. Women looked up from their grocery shopping; tourists pulled out their cameras.
In San Francisco, the traditions of Chinese-American funeral processions, with their blend of Eastern and Western customs, are thriving. Almost 300 parades wind their way from the Green Street Mortuary every year, shutting down busy streets. And one band plays them all: the Green St. Mortuary Band.
“There’s a real sense of community,” said band leader Lisa Pollard.
Motorcycle escorts clear the way, and a convertible bearing a picture of the deceased framed in flowers lets bystanders know who is being honored with the pageantry. Dozens of cars — up to 100 for highly regarded decedents — follow the procession past garment shops, dim sum restaurants, herb sellers.
“This is so people in Chinatown can see who passed away — they will step out and see who it is passing by,” said mortuary general manager Bill Steiner, who has picked up some Cantonese since he joined Green Street in 1976.
This tradition of honoring the dead with a band and public procession comes from a long commingling of Chinese and European customs in the particular melting pot that is San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The buildings, redone after the 1906 earthquake in a pseudo-Oriental style with curved eaves and colorful lanterns, make the neighborhood one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. But it remains a place where first-generation immigrants get their first toehold in America, counting on the support of traditional family associations and the comfort of a familiar language.
“San Francisco has been good about keeping these traditions — it’s really amazing to see,” said Amy Chan, camera in hand. She was visiting from Cleveland, Ohio, and had never seen a band playing along with a funeral.
The Green Street mortuary’s funerals and the band embody this blend of influences. The parade and the elaborate service respect the Chinese regard for funerals as significant life-passage rituals that can often be more expensive that weddings, with the “deluxe package” running just under $10,000 without the casket.
But the music, played by 10 all-white band members, mixes Christian hymns, Chinese tunes, and anything else that strikes the family’s fancy.
One family whose relative died of lung cancer had “Smoke gets in your eyes” played — it was the deceased’s last request. Chinese-American author Amy Tan wanted “Daisy Bell,” also known as “A bicycle built for two,” played on her mother Daisy’s funeral, said band leader Pollard. “When we played it on a corner in Chinatown, it was a real tear jerker.”
The funeral service offered by Green Street also includes ceremonial paper products — paper replicas of mansions, fancy cars, servants, outfits, mah jong tables — that can be burned within the chapels, which are equipped with an exhaust system, or at the cemetery, said Steiner.
Demand for the full service, band and all, has remained steady in spite of the recession, Steiner said.
“It’s a sign of respect for the family member,” Steiner said. “People come to us for this. It’s special.”