Funeral Industry Is 'Customized'


About a month ago, the Peek Family Colonial Funeral Home in Westminster put the finishing touches on the Terrace Rooms, a complex built especially to accommodate the growing number of Vietnamese funerals the mortuary has been handling.

There is a kitchen where the families can cook the special dishes they will offer to the spirit of the dead. There are two large viewing rooms where the families and close friends can linger for incense-scented services that sometimes go on for days. There also is an office for Theresa Nguyen Long, the counselor Peek Family Colonial hired two years ago because she understands the special cultural requirements of a Vietnamese funeral.

The changes, said Karyn Allen, the mortuary's manager, were made because she and her colleagues in the business understand that in death, as in life, Southern California is changing.

"California is such a melting pot that it is a good thing that we try to learn and understand what people do behind the scenes when someone close dies," she said.

As the American way of death takes on a distinctly immigrant cast, Southland mortuaries and cemeteries are increasingly responding to new cultures and customs by hiring bilingual workers, advertising in foreign languages and even remodeling their facilities to accommodate rites introduced here from around the globe.

"As the community has changed, we have changed with it," said Dennis C. Poulsen, president of Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. A cemetery or mortuary that fails to recognize the region's kaleidoscopic ethnic character, he said, is "not going to survive as a successful business."

Observers of the funeral industry say that many of the trends set by Southern California's cemeteries and mortuaries are already being adopted by funeral facilities in other regions with large immigrant communities. Just last year, the Director, an industry trade publication, ran an article explaining burial rituals practiced by Hmong, Latinos, Samoans, Muslims and Haitians.

"Immigrants need understanding and assistance, and funeral directors who serve these people well will also enhance their businesses," the magazine advised.

That advice is heeded on a daily basis in Southern California.

At Peek Family Colonial, for example, Long said many Vietnamese Buddhist families cremate their dead after a period of viewing the body. The entire ceremony is strictly overseen by a monk who refers to religious tables and charts dictating precisely when the body has to be cremated, or buried, depending on such factors as the exact time of death, the year the deceased was born and the relationship of that year to the current year.

During the viewing, mourners sometimes dress all in white and chant a series of prayers, Long said. They make a procession to the crematory and then follow the body to the pagoda, where they may pray for up to 100 days, if the deceased was especially well-loved.

Peek Family Colonial sometimes handles up to four Vietnamese funerals a week, and Long said she thinks it is because the mortuary is one of only a few in the area that employs someone who speaks Vietnamese.

"I think that's the important thing, especially for the old people," Long said. "They like to talk a lot. If they go to a place where they speak English only, they are afraid that something will go wrong, but they don't want to speak up. Then they don't feel comfortable, they don't feel happy. And for Vietnamese, something like this is as important as a wedding day."

The same could be said of funerals in many other cultures, funeral directors in Southern California say. From Mexican Catholics to Muslims, funerals are laden with ceremony, pomp and circumstance. Sometimes the traditions are in stark contrast to the quiet and to-the-point services of white families who are trying to say their goodbys to their deceased in the same funeral homes.

"You try to explain, but emotions are running real high at a time like this," said Peek Family Colonial manager Allen. "Their minds are on their own sorrow. You have to explain to them so they understand, and everybody does pretty much. But there's always the rare few who don't."

At other funeral homes throughout the Southland, Muslims prepare their dead for burial by gently washing the body, an act of devotion that takes family members into preparation rooms traditionally off limits to non-mortuary staff.

Korean families decline to schedule funerals on even-numbered dates, considered unlucky.

The Vietnamese immigrants' burning of incense has prompted some funeral directors to install fans in chapels to draw off the thick smoke.

In return, some immigrants have begun assimilating old American mourning traditions into their rites.

Last month in Los Angeles' Chinatown community, a funeral procession for respected businessman Ernest S. Wong was led by a jazz band playing the alternately mournful and joyful second-line funeral music of New Orleans.

As bandleader Tommy Cortez danced and strutted out in front, the procession passed by the Han-Hoa Jewelry Co. and Canton Poultry to the strains of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

The procession followed a zig-zag course so that the hearse would not cross over its own path, considered bad luck in Chinese tradition.

The accommodating funeral directors at the Wah Wing Sang Gutierrez and Weber Mortuary--its very name a jarring testament to the awkward blending of cultures--had plotted the route accordingly.

But at many older funeral homes, which traditionally served homogeneous ethnic populations, the transition is more difficult.

"It involves a lot of new learning," said Ted Brandt, vice president of Forest Lawn, whose billboards promise Latinos Todo en un lugar-- everything in one place. "It's obvious that we're all experiencing an increase in almost all of the ethnic areas because of the complete change in the demographics. . . . And we'll see more of it in the future."

Along with other funeral directors in the region, executives at Rose Hills first noticed that their clientele was changing in the mid-1980s.

Employees discovered that their state rooms, built in 1961 with nuclear families in mind, had become too small to accommodate the larger extended families of Asians and Latinos who were arriving for prayer vigils, Poulsen said.

On March 1, the mortuary opened five new state rooms designed for Latino and Asian services. The rooms are large, spacious enough for Asian rites, in which mourners circle the coffin with burning incense sticks.

In death and in life, the growing minority populations are changing the demographics of mortality in Southern California.

Although Asian and Latino communities are burgeoning in Orange County, they constitute only a small percentage of deaths, according to the Department of Vital Statistics, which compiles mortality records by ethnicity.

But the percentage is growing. During 1988, the last year with available statistics, 89% of the county's total deaths of 14,722 were white. Another 7% were Latino, and 3% were Asian.

In 1980, 95% of the county's 11,925 deaths were white, while only 3% were Latino and 1% were Asian.

During that period, the number of Latino deaths rose from 365 to 1,014, and Asian deaths climbed from 154 to 365.

As a result, courting immigrant groups is now an investment, say funeral directors.

"It is a long-term market," said Brandt of Forest Lawn.

The region's older funeral homes are not the only firms looking for business among immigrant communities. Immigrants themselves are now stepping in to provide burial services.

Funeral director Paul Kim said that his discomfort with a funeral for his parents at a traditional cemetery prompted him to open the first Korean mortuary in Los Angeles in 1984. Koreans express grief openly, even loudly, he said, and his family felt out of place at the staid cemetery.

Formerly in the import-export business, Kim recognized an untapped market. Soon, other Korean immigrants saw the same potential. One of Kim's former employees, Jaeung Yun, jumped to Pierce Brothers in 1987, and the chain of 40 funeral homes advertised his arrival in Korean newspapers, radio and television. A second employee left to start his own funeral home three months ago.

Yet, as some immigrants face the logistics of death in America, they have come to realize that death--like life--sometimes forces them to make compromises.

Muslims, for example, do not use coffins, believing the corpse should be allowed to return to the earth. Caskets are not mandated by California law, but most cemeteries require them to prevent graves from settling.

Adapting, Muslims now bury their dead directly in the concrete vaults made to encase caskets, said A. Nasouf, vice coordinator at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"Sometimes certain customs conflict with our laws," said Richard R. Gutierrez, president of the Wah Wing Sang Gutierrez and Weber Mortuary.

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