Chinese Cemetery Field Trip
On Sunday, September 10, our volunteers were given a special invite to visit three Chinese Cemeteries in the South Bay. We started in South San Francisco with our hosts Sonia Ng, Roland Hui, and Norman Cheng giving us an exclusive peek into their cultural traditions and practices. We learned that there are three main structures to a Chinese Cemetery outside of its grave markers, the funerary burner(s), the altar(s), and a monument to the Earth God. This invaluable information will help us rebuild the Alhambra Cemetery Potter's Field Chinese Funerary Burner(s) and Altar(s).
Ancestral Honor Ritual
At the second cemetery in Colma, Sonia demonstrated the Chinese tradition of the tomb sweeping ritual to honor their ancestors using the Altar\mass grave for unknown Chinese-American remains found recently in San Francisco. The ceremony begins with a bow facing the altar, then with the burning of incense (usually Joss Sticks in a grouping of three). An offering of freshly cooked chicken and pork along with fruit (of any type) is placed on the altar. Next, a favorite wine or liqueur is poured into three cups, and then spilled onto the altar to allow the ancestors to drink it. Every person who attends the ceremony repeats the ritual of filling the cups and spilling them onto the altar. Lastly, the ancestors would consider it an insult if the food was not then shared and consumed by those in attendance as they reminisce fondly of the person or person(s) they are honoring.
Funerary Burner & Altar Examples
We were shown an array of many altars and burners, especially at the large Six Mountains Cemetery in Daly City. Burners are never placed in front but always to the side or a short distance from the altar for burning paper imitations of money, I phones, cars, computers, etc., that their ancestors can use in their afterlife. Each altar and burner is associated with a specific clan, behind which their members are buried. It is interesting to note that the more prestige, money, and size a clan has the more ornate and elaborate their altars and burners become. We also found alter\burner combinations located at both the bottom and the top of their clan section.
It was another grand archaeology day at Potter's Field, this past Saturday, September 16. Fortified by information we learned from the three Chinese Cemeteries, we eagerly began our next steps in rebuilding the Chinese Funerary Burner. After the experts consulted with each other, volunteers were divided into groups for excavating bricks, sifting for possible artifacts, and removing mortar. Refreshments of water, various fresh fruits, and healthy trail mixes kept the body and morale up for the day. With the new trail opened for cyclists, many stopped by for the first time. Once their questions were quenched with nourishing answers, some donated to this fine enterprise.
Bricks and Cleaning
The auspicious job takes a great deal of patience and tenacity. Several volunteers dedicated themselves to this meditative Zen task, including Fremont brick expert, Dan Mosier, who only occasionally came up for air. He went on to give us a mini lecture on how our bricks were made and by whom. We actually discovered samples from four different manufacturers and periods contained within our brick pile. One sample from the late 1800's was made by hand utilizing wooden molds that left a wood grain look to the finished product.
Sifting For Artifacts
Like taking lumps out of flour, volunteers sifted through the earth with diligence utilizing the excellent tutelage from our two archaeologists Sean Dexter (hailing from Martinez) and Shauna Mundt (from the City of Concord). However, not much of an artifact to write home about, a fish vertebra was found in the dirt surrounding the burner! Besides being a sea port, many of the Chinese worked in the Martinez cannery in the 1800's. It would only be natural for them to offer fish to their ancestors. Like the miners who found gold in California, our volunteer sifters earthen faces were still smiling!
Much was accomplished with shovels in hand. Volunteers carefully moved the earth around the burner while others chipped and pride apart chunks of brick like peanut butter from white bread. After the last exciting discovery of finding the brick chambers, excitement came again when the bottom seemed to be reached. Nevertheless, like the Roman temple ruins or the chambers of an Egyptian pyramid, there were even more layers beneath! What mysteries will we find next? Stay tuned to find out...
We wish to offer special thanks and recognition to all of our dedicated volunteers and experts who participated in Saturday’s Archaeology Day and our special field trip: Lisa Adkisson, Norman Cheng, Dawn Curren, Sean Dexter, Roland Hui, Carolyn Mac Kenzie, Dan Mosier, Shauna Mundt, Sonia Ng, Christian Rousset, Karen and Ray Wallace, Della Washington, Bili and Matthew White. Without these fine folks, there would be no project.
For more information on the Martinez Historical Society’s - Potter’s Field Restoration Project, please visit our website MartinezCemetery.org. Do you have a Potter’s Field resident story to tell? We welcome any pictures or information on anyone or anything regarding Potter’s Field. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (925) 335-9396.
To find out more about Martinez and Contra Costa County history:
Martinez Museum – 1005 Escobar Street, corner of Court Street. Open Tues and Thurs 11:30 a.m. to 3p.m. First 4 Sundays 1-4 p.m. 925-228-8160; www.martinezhistory.org.
Contra Costa County History Center – 610 Main Street, Martinez. Open Tues through Thurs, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 3rd Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 925-229-1042; www.cocohistory.com
Judie & Joseph Palmer are two of the founding members of the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA) and the Potter’s Field Project. Both have a passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology and archaeology.