Land of 10,000 Stories: New neighbors for founding fathers

8:42 AM, Sep 29, 2010   |    comments
  • Share
  • Print
  • - A A A +

ST. PAUL, Minn. --  Henry Rice, Norman Kittson and James Goodhue gave names to Minnesota Counties.  Henry Sibley was the state's first governor and Alexander Ramsey rose to U.S. Secretary of War.

In life they held different views, but all of them died with one thing in common: they were buried at St. Paul's Oakland Cemetery.

Now, some of the oldest names in Minnesota are being joined by some of the newest.

Hmong immigrant Doua Thao Yang, a much loved mother and grandmother, was laid to rest in July next to steamship captain John H. Reaney, who gave name to a St. Paul avenue and died a century before Yang's arrival from a refugee camp in Thailand.

"We feel that this is a good home for my mother," said Chai Pao Yang, Doua's oldest son.  That Chai picked this grave at this cemetery is no random matter.  For in death Doua joins hundreds of Hmong immigrants, whose polished black granite stones highlight a sort of afterlife integration taking place with St. Paul's founding fathers and mothers.

Kou Vang, owner of three Hmong funeral chapels, said Oakland offers much to those following Hmong traditions.  In Oakland's rolling terrain Hmong families see symbols of open arms and pillows that offer their departed loved ones security and protection.

While in the distance they see from Oakland the state capitol, the center of power at which most Hmong graves are intentionally pointed.  "That is the number one anchor," explained Vang,  "You want your foot to be right on the capitol so you can step up and go."

One wonders what St. Paul's most prominent citizens from the past might say if they could speak to their new neighbors?  Actually, "Thank you" would be in order.

Oakland Cemetery was in trouble in the early 1980s as newly-deceased Hmong immigrants first began arriving in modest county-paid burials.   Oakland's North End neighborhood was changing from homeowners to renters, who didn't have the same family ties to the old cemetery. 

"We were down to roughly 180 internments a year.  At one time we did 600 a year here," said Bob Schoenrock, Oakland's general manager.  "We just weren't generating enough revenue to offset the expenses."

But as St. Paul's newest immigrant families found a home with the oldest, Oakland Cemetery itself was reborn with new burials and a new revenue stream.  "It's actually allowed us to do a lot of the things weren't able to do before," said Schoenrock.

The ongoing maintenance and improvements in the cemetery have not gone unnoticed.  Hmong families come often to visit.  

"Our loved ones are all here and I think it's just a tradition for us," said Xeng Yang, who buried her husband at Oakland after he passed away in March from kidney failure.

According to traditional Hmong teachings, each person has two spirits.  One spirit is reincarnated after death, while the other lives at the burial site.  It is for the spirit at the cemetery, that Hmong visitors often leave food for their dead.  "They're still hungry somehow, we think," said Xeng Yang.

Engravings and etchings in Hmong headstones tell detailed stories of a mountainous homeland in Laos left behind, and of deep patriotism for the United States, the country they were recruited by the CIA to serve during the Vietnam War.

Kou Vang explains, "They are very proud of that involvement because they view that involvement as a catalyst to kind of bring us over here."

Across the street from the cemetery at Schoenrock Monument, Hmong headstones now represent a third of sales.

Chester Schoenrock, the company's 84-year-old, third generation owner -- and Bob's father -- appreciated the Hmong adherence to traditional burials.  Cremations are rare in the Hmong community.

As a show of appreciation and respect, "I was going to learn their language," laughed Chester,  "but it was too hard."

Once a week, Sauk Rapids artist Allan Brisse stops by Schoenrock with his etching tools.  "There's hardly a stone that doesn't have a portrait on it," he said.  Brisse estimates 90 percent of the Hmong stones at Oakland bear his etchings.

They are stones becoming increasingly grand as Hmong people in St. Paul gain wealth and status.  Perhaps they are inspired by the masterpieces set a century ago to honor Minnesota's founders.  In their homeland graves were often marked with a stick or a rock, if at all.

"Being here has really offered us an opportunity to memorialize who we are, who that person is, and to tell that story," said Kou Vang.

Within the gates of Oakland Cemetery, Kou Vang sees the story of America.  "In life we have to live together and be good neighbors and in death we have to live together and be good neighbors, because we leave something behind."

(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

Most Watched Videos