Chinese burials in Boston

Memorial Altar at Mount Hope Cemetery. Photo by Aaron Knox,

This year I was sorry to miss a festival my family has participated in annually since my childhood. During the fall, two Chinese festivals commemorate ancestors: the Ghost or Hungry Ghost Festival and the Double Ninth Festival. The Ghost Festival occurs on the fifteenth night of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar (typically held sometime between mid-August and mid-September), and the ghosts of ancestors are said to be visiting their living descendants, who offer meals and material items for their enjoyment. The Double Ninth Festival that my family observes occurs on the ninth day of the ninth month (some time during the month of October), and we honor our ancestors at the cemetery.

During these festivals honoring ancestors, families arrive at the graveside to clean the past season’s debris and, for the more traditional observers of these events, place food and drink at the grave, sometimes burning incense or paper money. At the end of the visit, the food and drink is shared out among the participants to take home. My parents were more practical: we tidied and placed flowers, offered our respects with three bows together, and afterwards ate together either at home or at a restaurant.

The three sections can be found far from the main entrance…

Several members of my family are buried in Boston’s Mount Hope Cemetery, which hosts a Chinese burial ground. Mount Hope, originally a private cemetery consecrated in 1852, is one of three municipal cemeteries established during the mid-nineteenth century. It was the first to allow a dedicated section for the burial of Boston’s Chinese residents during the Exclusion era that spanned roughly the 1870s through the 1940s.

The three sections can be found far from the main entrance, abutting quiet residential streets and near the unmarked field that holds the remains of the city’s poor and indigent. During the majority of the Exclusion years many burials were of sojourner male Chinese who came to the United States for work to support family still in China. Many of the gravestones of those without descendants in the United States have fallen into disrepair because of the harsh New England weather, while others have been vandalized.

In 1989, concerned members of the Chinese community came together to address the conditions in this historic burying ground. The Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE) was founded to collect, document, and preserve the Chinese experience in New England, and spearheaded the effort to rebuild a memorial altar, to improve the area landscape, and to conduct a program to restore or replace broken gravestones and to identify all who are buried in these three sections. By 2008, the new Memorial Altar was completed and an inventory database project underway.

[It] is possible to check some records of burials in the historic Chinese burial grounds.

While the inventory project is incomplete, it is possible to check some records of burials in the historic Chinese burial grounds. Early records for Mount Hope Cemetery are maintained by the City of Boston Archives and are available for research at their facility in West Roxbury. Chinese mortuary deeds – as well as burial permits, infant mortuary deeds, and lot sales records for the whole cemetery spanning 1875 to 1952 – are held by the Archive and cover the time period of 1912 through 1937 with gaps. A finding aid for the entire record collection is available.

Mount Hope Cemetery came into being just prior to the Rural Cemetery movement. Over time it acquired landscaped roadways with seasonal plantings, and was a place for outdoor recreation before the development of Boston’s park system. Though the cemetery was difficult to access and develop, burials at Mount Hope continued, and eventually it grew from the original 85 acres to its current 125 acres. Special monuments dot the landscape to commemorate groups such as the Boston Police and the Grand Army of the Republic. Looking ahead, spring (and the next festival) will be here soon, and I will visit again.

About Alice Kane

Alice Kane worked with NEHGS constituents until 2020, orienting and facilitating research for first-time visitors to the NEHGS headquarters. Prior to joining the staff, she was a librarian at the Boston Public Library for 19 years. Alice is an expert in Chinese and Chinese-American genealogy and also has extensive experience with French-Canadian, Irish, and German research. She earned a bachelor’s degree in History from Harvard University.

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