1944: Racism at Rosehill: The Cemetery Refuses to Bury Tom Chan

On September 10, 1944, John Vercoe, superintendent of Rosehill cemetery in northern Chicago, offered a series of excuses to the Chicago Tribune.  His problem was that he was being criticized for his refusal to allow Tom Y. Chan, a recently deceased Chinatown leader (and the father of another leader, Ping Tom) to be buried next to his wife Mary Goo.  She had been buried at Rosehill more than 20 years before (see the 1892 Vanishing Cemetery report).

Vercoe’s excuses were as follows.  First, the “Chan” (actually, Tom) family had only one grave, not a plot large enough for two, and the cemetery would not sell them a larger plot.

Second, the cemetery was not given the wife’s personal name, and without that her grave could not be located.

And third, the cemetery no longer permitted Chinese to be buried there anyway.  The cemetery management had begun to refuse new Chinese burials a quarter-century ago and had bought back many single graves from Chinese owners since then.  Religious leaders protested, apparently against this racist policy.  But according to Vercoe, the cemetery’s refusal “had nothing to do with race but with practical situations.”

The so-called practical situations involved traditional secondary burial customs of “non-Christian Chinese.”  Vercoe described these customs as follows.  “They often disinterred their dead to burn the flesh from the bones over a charcoal grill; polish the bones, and pack them into tin boxes for shipment to China for final burial … Adjoining lot owners protested the scenes and the stench.”

It is evident that Vercoe, who may never have witnessed it himself, was referring to the Southern Chinese ceremony known as “bone washing.”  An article in the Taipei Times in 2004 notes that in modern Taiwan, where cremations are widespread, some people still hire professional bone washers to exhume an ancestor’s bones, clean them and rebury them, apparently often but not always in another place.  One bone washing specialist interviewed by the newspaper said that he takes the bones back to his work studio for cleaning.  However, we have heard of cases where 20th century families in Guangdong chose to do the cleaning themselves right at the graveside, although never with fire to burn the flesh off the bones.  The custom exists (or has recently existed) among certain families belonging to the Kejia (Hakka), Cantonese, Southern Fujianese (Minnanese), Taiwanese, Chuang, and perhaps other southern Chinese ethnic groups.

In all such cases the ceremony is/was reverent and intensely private.  We find it hard to believe that any outsiders, including the cemetery officials, not to mention owners of neighboring plots, would have been allowed to see it.  Perhaps the Chinese performing the ceremony were required to employ the cemetery’s own gravediggers, who may have guessed what was going on and reported it to their bosses, who in turn used those reports to justify their own local Chinese Exclusion Act.

It is hard to see why the cemetery could not simply have required all exhumed bodies to be taken to a designated place for cremation or cleaning.  And as Vercoe himself stated, only non-Christian Chinese performed such rites.  Tom Chan, who had a Christian wife and is likely to have been Christian himself, should not have been excluded, and yet he was.  Clearly, Vercoe was not telling the whole truth when he informed the Tribune’s reporter that “the cemetery simply faced a practical situation that had to be changed.  We are not a bit sorry about the decision and are not offering apologies for it.”

Chicago Daily Tribune, Sept 10, 1944, p 26

Taipei Times, Nov 21, 2004, p 18

Andrea Stamm found the Tribune article. Chuimei Ho, Joe Chiu, Jack Simpson, and Ben Bronson contributed to this report.