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Coming of age

Vietnamese elders are looking to establish their own affordable burial ground in Boston. But city cemetery space is running out. And so is time.

Email|Print| Text size + By Ric Kahn
Globe Staff / January 27, 2008

Happy Nguyen knows how to live alone.

He lost a major chunk of his younger days to a series of communist prison camps, isolated from his wife and children for 17 years.

Now he is 74 and living in Dorchester, and when he passes away he wants to find quietude among his crowd: The throng of Vietnamese family and friends who spent their days around Dorchester Avenue - the Hub's little Little Saigon - sipping green tea or playing chess before they, too, departed.

"We want to be buried next to each other," Nguyen says of his community.

Precisely where his tomb will lie, Nguyen does not know. He has no burial plot in hand. "No money," Nguyen says in distinct English.

But he wants it to be in a place that's as comfortable as a Buddhist flower garden, so that the presiding monk can feel totally at ease when he comes to Nguyen's grave and, abiding by tradition, sets his spirit free with powerful chants.

With remains now dispersed among different graveyards, from the city to the suburbs, an informal group representing more than 300 Vietnamese elders like Nguyen is hoping to establish its own central burial ground in Boston, one with a price its members can squeeze into their strained budgets.

For now, they have found no place to rest.

Distress over future digs can weigh heavier on Vietnamese seniors, who are part of a culture that honors its forebears with religious or communal rites at the burial site. Rituals include burning incense and offering food to the deceased, while the living reminisce about them.

Just ahead on the earthly calendar is the Feb. 7 Tet holiday, a time when the grounds near ancestral graves are tidied to usher in the Vietnamese New Year.

Hop Bui, 78, sums up the present predicament with a Vietnamese proverb: "The living should have a house; the dying should have a tomb."

Some of the elderly had hoped they could find common ground near the venerable Chinese section of Mt. Hope in Mattapan, one of three active city-owned cemeteries.

But there is no room left. That trio of reasonably priced municipal graveyards is already sardined, city officials say, with only enough remaining spots to last until 2020.

If cemetery space is running out, so is time.

Those who fled Vietnam for Boston largely came here in four major waves. There were the early refugees of 1975, the so-called boat people who escaped by water in the '70s and '80s, the Amerasians of the '80s and '90s, and the former prisoners, like Nguyen, who arrived in the '90s and early 2000s.

The influx helped push the Vietnamese population past 10,000 citywide, making it the second-largest group of Asian descent, behind only the Chinese, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority's latest figures, based on the 2000 census.

"They're coming of age together," says Hiep Chu, executive director of the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development, in Dorchester.

As they get older en masse, many Vietnam ese here have little money to spend beyond everyday needs, let alone the demands of death, such as private plots that can run up to $10,000, according to the Massachusetts Cemetery Association.

Statistics show that 46 percent of Vietnamese in Massachusetts are living on low incomes, says the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass-Boston.

Nguyen says he receives a senior benefits check of $578.46 a month. Even if he could afford to have his body shipped back to Vietnam and buried there - a package that some peg in the $10,000 range - Nguyen says he would not do it.

He does not want to burden his three children who live here now with such a long trip to visit his grave. Besides, he says, "I'm US citizen."

Having already reached other markers in their new home, such as learning English and registering to vote, many Vietnamese seniors are anxious to account for their final touchstone: getting buried here.

"Young people, they think about the career, the house," says Hoan Bui, director of health and social services for the Vietnamese-American Civic Association in Dorchester. "The elderly, they think about their last day."

At-Large City Councilor Sam Yoon, who lives in Dorchester, says Vietnamese elders brought their cause to him when he first ran for the seat in 2005. Even though some relayed their message through a translator, Yoon says he felt the passion directly.

"They didn't ask me about trash removal or parking or some development that's too dense," he says. "This is what they asked me."

Years later, it remains an issue for those who do not want to be cremated.Yoon says he's run into obstacles trying to come up with a solution. But he says he will continue to help guide the elders through the process of finding a burying ground, from trying to secure moderately priced plots in or outside the city, as some Chinese have done south of Boston, to marshaling the seniors' political power at a public hearing.

"This is about entering the next life," says Yoon. "The thought that you could be lost among a sea of souls that you have no extensive connection with is frightening."

Some of the seniors looked to Mt. Hope and saw a sector of the cemetery set aside for Chinese in an area that activists recently dressed up with a memorial. They thought that they could settle in nearby.

But things have changed dramatically since the Chinese began burying their dead there, traced by activists to at least the early 1900s.

There was more open cemetery space back then, city officials say. And because a state statute now reserves the right of every Boston resident to be buried in a city plot (current rate: $1,448), officials say they can no longer sell the slots in advance, individually or as a block, but only at the time of need.

"We're happy to work with them and support their desire, but I'm not sure it would be in an existing cemetery," Antonia Pollak, Boston's Parks and Recreation commissioner, says of the Vietnamese efforts to find residence in the city's crowded cemetery stock.

Also, Chinese activists believe there is evidence to suggest that the historic Chinese quarter at Mt. Hope has less than a pristine past. They feel the separate sector originally had as much to do with segregating that population as it did with celebrating it, according to leaders of the Chinese Historical Society of New England.

As for Vietnamese moving in next door, the old Chinese portion is packed - a more recent spillover section has but five plots left - and it's hardly choice, sitting next to a shed where cemetery vehicles whir and pump engine exhaust into the air.

"They can learn from the Chinese model, but it's not the same," says Peter Kiang, a professor of Asian American Studies at UMass-Boston who is copresident of the historical society.

Sitting in her Dorchester parlor filled with Buddhas, 74-year-old Thu-Hong Nguyen ruminates aloud for several minutes about how to secure a final landing spot on her fixed income, but all paths lead nowhere.

She heard Chinese are getting plots in suburbia for $600. Actually, says a funeral home employee familiar with the purchases, it's more than double that amount. What about a state-subsidized welfare burial? Nguyen might qualify, but she could end up under an unmarked grave in a potter's field beside unclaimed bodies, not Vietnamese refugees.

Finally, Nguyen puts her worry aside for another day.

"When I die," she says through an interpreter, "it's up to the family to take care of my funeral."

Ric Kahn can be reached at rkahn@globe.com.

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