Indo-Americans' cremation customs clash with red tape  

By: Lisa Fernandez
Source: Mercury News; Nov. 21, 1999

Cremating the dead in India requires no forms. Simple coffins cost about $25. And the funeral business is unheard of.

But in Silicon Valley, the death of a loved one can be a bureaucratic nightmare for Sikhs, Hindus and Jains who never before had to sign off on state-mandated cremation forms, pay for expensive caskets or worry about violating fire codes to light ceremonial lamps.

This clash between ancient custom and American red tape has proved so shocking to many in the area's large Indo-American population that four of its members, including a physician, recently assembled a how-to guide to help people navigate the rules and regulations before a relative's body can be turned into ashes.

``In India, you just order a wood box for about $25 or $50 and that's it,'' said Chandra Parekh of Sunnyvale, who couldn't believe the hurdles she faced before she was allowed to cremate her mother-in-law. ``No one tries to sell you a coffin for two or three hours. I've never seen this before in my life.''

The free booklet, now being distributed, arrives as Bay Area funeral directors work to change their practices to better serve the traditions of the region's estimated 100,000 Indo-Americans -- just as they scrambled earlier to accommodate the death rituals of an increasingly diverse clientele. This has included Vietnamese, Chinese and other groups who mark death in ways not widely practiced in the United States.

In catering to Indo-Americans, this has meant setting aside special rooms for washing the bodies of loved ones and learning to dress the dead in saris and other traditional garb.

Hindus and others say they appreciate the effort.

``I had a good experience,'' said Tushar Patel of San Mateo, an IBM technical consultant who recently attended a cremation at Spangler Mortuaries in Mountain View. ``It was obvious (the mortuary) had experience with Hindu funerals. We wanted them to tie a janoi (a sacred thread) on my friend's father, who is a Brahman. They seemed pretty familiar with it.''

Guide teaches both sides

That new-found knowledge is due in part to the local ``Guide to Cremation Services,'' which is as much a cultural guide for Bay Area funeral directors as it is a practical booklet for Indo-Americans.

The guide took four years to complete and included many visits by its authors to mortuaries and crematoriums. The guide was written specifically for Hindu, Jain and Sikh followers, who make up the majority of the Indo-Americans living in the Bay Area. It offers a sampling of forms, lists of who performs South Asian funerals, and examples of prices with mortuaries negotiated especially for Indo-Americans.

The booklet's authors are J.B. Shah, the information technology director for Electroglas, Inc. in Santa Clara; Dr. Ramesh Patel, an assistant emergency department chief at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Hayward; and Bipin Kapadia, an insurance agent, and Wasu Chaudhari, an engineer, both of San Jose.

``My friends have been here for 16 or 17 years and didn't have a clue what to do when someone dies and where the crematoriums are,'' said Patel, who, like the majority of Indo-Americans, believes the body's natural materials must return to Earth.

Cremation is also popular because India is about the same size as the United States but with nearly four times the population. Most Eastern religions believe that a loved one is reincarnated after the body is cremated.

The Bay Area's cremation rate is 60 percent -- one of the highest in the country, said Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America in Chicago. Reasons for its popularity include cremation's relatively inexpensive price tag and the Bay Area's growing Asian populations, whose cultures embrace the process, Springer said. Also, cremation is popular in areas near water.

Guide's distribution

Since spring, more than 1,000 copies of the Indo-American cremation guide have been distributed, mainly through the Gujarati Cultural Association of the Bay Area in Fremont, Kaiser Permanente in Hayward, and the Sikh gurdwara (temple) in Fremont. The information can also be found at the association's Web site (www.gcabayarea.com). Copies have been distributed around the country as an example to Indo-Americans of how to create similar booklets.

Having a guide would have been helpful to Chandra Parekh, who like many immigrants comes from a younger generation that never organized a funeral in India or the United States.

Parekh's mother-in-law died five years ago and the family had difficulty obtaining a third sibling's signature for a cremation form.

The third brother still lives in India and the family had to fax a form for him to sign. The brother also had to prove his identity with a birth certificate -- another form he didn't have because it isn't routinely given out in India. Parekh no longer remembers how the family finally got all the paperwork squared away. All she remembers is that it took about 36 hours to get her mother-in-law cremated when in the Jain religion, and most other East Indian cultures, bodies must be cremated as soon as possible.

``You just don't know these things,'' Parekh said. ``We weren't prepared for it. It wasn't pleasant.''

In India, she said, there is ``no such thing as the funeral business.'' Parekh said she has been amazed to hear about mortuaries trying to sell families expensive caskets with brass handles when the box would just be incinerated a short time later.

Recently, however, she's noticed a change for the better -- at least with some mortuaries. At a funeral in San Jose, morticians had learned to tie sari knots on women's bodies, something they had stumbled over the last time she was there.

Special room set aside

At Fremont Memorial Chapel, funeral counselor Jeff Orozco said the mortuary has set aside a special room for Indo-American families to wash their loved one's bodies. The decision was made as a goodwill gesture to the community but also as a practical business move, Orozco said. Many Indo-American families prefer to wash their family member's bodies themselves and then apply water, milk, yogurt, butter or honey to the skin. The ritual can take two or three hours.

``It would tie up a room and we'd get backlogged,'' Orozco said of the old arrangements.

Since it has started to accommodate the community's cultural needs, the chapel's Indo-American business has grown from about 5 percent to 20 percent in the last five years, Orozco estimates. The chapel also offers a fixed price of $1,800 for all Indo-American funerals -- something the company hasn't negotiated for any other community.

Not all mortuaries, however, have been as culturally sympathetic.

Patel, one of the guide's authors, said he had a bad experience in Orange County when his mother died two years ago. The mortuary there wouldn't allow his family to light ceremonial lamps, citing fire safety reasons, or allow the eldest son to light the fire to start the cremation -- an age-old Hindu tradition -- because of insurance liabilities.

So the Patel family decided to move the body to another mortuary in Los Angeles County, which allowed these customs. But the Orange County funeral director said he wouldn't allow a transfer across county lines. After paying him about $500, Patel said, the funeral director finally allowed the move, and the family cremated their relative in Los Angeles County.

``It was kind of frustrating,'' Patel said.