Oregon's first Vietnamese Buddhist cemetery a reality

by ANGIE CHUANG, Oregon Live, December 5, 2005

A dream of followers to have a place to rest in peace comes alive

Portland, Oregon (USA) -- The Buddhist monks and nuns wore woolen knit caps and struggled to keep the altar candles lit in the wind. But as the near-freezing morning turned their Vietnamese chants into puffs of condensation, the Chimes Memorial Garden in Portland made history Sunday.

"Before, this burial ground was just a dream, a great idea," William Vuong, an organizer, told about 50 Southeast Asian community members gathered at the dedication of the first-ever Vietnamese Buddhist cemetery in Oregon. "Now, thanks to the hard work of many, we have made a dream come true."

Until now, the Portland-area's Southeast Asian Buddhist community cremated their dead and kept urns in temples or vaults, or sent them back to their birthplaces. But some prefer burial, and there were no Southeast Asian Buddhist cemeteries in the state.

Several community and religious leaders worked with the Chimes Memorial Garden and Sunnyside Little Chapel of the Chimes, a funeral home, to establish the 348-space burial ground on a hillside off Southeast Stevens Road. It will be used primarily by Buddhists from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. A white marble Buddha statue imported from Vietnam keeps watch over the gravesites.

The sites are marked with tiny flags -- green ones for those that are available and red for those that are reserved. By Sunday, 55 sites had been reserved.

That shows the clear need for a burial ground like this one, said Bac-Ai Nguyen, president of the Oregon Vietnamese Community Association. Vietnamese Catholics have a dedicated burial site at Lincoln Memorial Park in Portland, he said, but it means a great deal for Buddhists to have one as well.

"It takes a Vietnamese guy working in the funeral business for this to happen," he said.

That's Anh Nguyen, a family counselor and adviser for Dignity Memorial, the international network that includes Chimes Memorial Garden, Lincoln Memorial Park and dozens of others other cemeteries and funeral homes in the area.

Anh Nguyen said the new site is part of a plan to provide thousands of culturally appropriate burial sites for the Portland area's growing Asian American community. By most recent census estimates, the three-county metro area has more than 90,000 Asian American residents.

Lincoln Memorial Park currently is constructing an "Asian Garden" that will incorporate traditions from a variety of Asian countries and provide 3,000 burial sites.

At Sunday's ceremony, the nuns and monks made offerings and prayed, sanctifying the Buddha statue and the burial ground. The U.S. flag and the South Vietnamese flag flanked them, symbolizing the dual homelands of those who will be buried there.

"We Buddhist believers like to be near our community and families. They keep us safe as we pass on," said Thich Minh An, a monk and spiritual leader at Portland's Minh Quang Temple who led the ceremony.

Because Asian cultures place high importance on visiting and tending family members' graves, many immigrants and refugees want to be buried in Oregon, said Chi Jones, a board member of the Vietnamese Science and Culture Society of Oregon. "They want their kids to be close."

Standing in the wings at the gathering were a half-dozen members of the grounds crew who helped build the cemetery and will maintain it. Wearing rain gear and curious expressions, some of the veteran workers acknowledged they had never seen anything like the Buddhist ritual.

"It gives you a good feeling for people to walk away with smiles on their faces," said John LaGood, the construction foreman who oversaw building of the Buddhist cemetery.

"A lot of people think we just mow lawns, but it's a lot more than that," LaGood said. "You think about the different traditions of the people who will be buried there and who will be visiting."