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Chinese Funerary Burner

Written by Richard Patchin

Chinese had arrived in California with the onset of the Gold Rush. From almost the beginning of that immigration they were in Martinez. Many more came to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Many of the leading families of Contra Costa and Alameda Counties had Chinese cooks, house servants, and field workers. The Strentzels and the Muirs were among the growers who employed Chinese workers. A fish cannery in Martinez also employed many Chinese workers who were brought in to work for low wages.

A common feature in the Chinese section of host community cemeteries is the “burner” (sometimes mistakenly called an “oven”).  The Chinese believed that when the flesh decomposed the devil was driven out. It was customary for Chinese families to leave dishes of food on the graves, and also numerous small confetti-like papers with small holes in them, the idea being that through these the devil could not get to the body of the deceased, but would become confused if he attempted to find his way among all the supposed obstructions.

The Chinese Funerary burner, a brick or masonry structure,  served as a safe place for the ritualized burning of spiritual tributes.  These paper and cardboard facsimiles of money, clothing, possessions, and houses, would serve the deceased in the afterlife. Burning these items passes them to the spirit realm.

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