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November 22, 1999


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Dying in Silicon Valley

R S Shankar

When Yashpal Soi talks about constructing a crematorium for Hindus in the New York tristate area, he gets passionate responses from members of the community.

"We are scared to death whenever someone we know is dying," says Vani Bose, a home-maker.

"We want to provide some of the customary last rites we have in India but many funeral parlors just do not understand our wishes." They are shocked at the request for a room to have ritualistic bath for the dead body. They will not allow the eldest son to light the body.

Soni, president of the Federation of Indian Associations, thinks if the New York crematorium project becomes a success, similar facilities could come up in many states.

Bose also says that many recent immigrants feel utterly helpless in dealing with death certificates, wills and other concomitant issues. There are hardly any articles in the Indian media about funeral rituals, she feels. The second generation, especially those living in smaller cities and towns, do not know how to handle the death of a family member or a visiting relative.

"They have to call their friends in other cities or shoot messages through e-mail," Bose says, adding that Indian community organizations ought to give a serious thought to this problem.

Now, Cremation Guide, a booklet produced by four Silicon Valley professionals not only offers information about the funeral homes which could accommodate the wishes of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains but also enlightens the community about making the final arrangement. The San Francisco region has an estimated 100,000 Indo-Americans.

Distributed largely through the Gujarati Cultural Association, the booklet also alerts the community about the possibility of donating organs and bodies, and the need for a will. Addresses of agencies that accept donations are given.

The booklet is getting attention not only in the Indian community but also in the mainstream media.

'In India, you just order a wood box for about $ 25 or $ 50 and that's it,' one Indian was quoted as saying in the San Jose Mercury News.

She said she could not believe the hurdles she faced before she cremated her mother-in-law five years ago. The Indian, who was brought up in America, had no ideal about the rituals, and had to request the Jain associations to help her. It took her nearly 34 hours to have her mother-in-law cremated.

She would have benefited from the booklet written by J B Shah, the information technology director for Electroglas Inc in Santa Clara; Dr Ramesh Patel, an assistant emergency department chief at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Hayward; Bipin Kapadia, an insurance agent; and Wasu Chaudhari, an engineer, the last two of San Jose.

The booklet suggests to funeral homes setting aside special rooms for washing the dead bodies. It took nearly three years to put together the booklet because the writers consulted scores of funeral homes to find out which ones could satisfy the needs of the Indian community.

The booklet is also meant for Hindus, Sikhs and Jains who may not have a clear idea of funeral rites. It offers a sampling of forms, lists of who performs South Asian funerals, and examples of prices with mortuaries negotiated especially for Indo-Americans.

About 1,200 copies of the 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 in Fremont. The association says hundreds of requests are pouring every week -- the booklet has been out for over three months -- from other parts of America.

Several Gujarati and other associations are working on producing similar booklets in their states.

Meanwhile, the afore-mentioned Indian says some mortuaries are learning fast to satisfy the needs of Hindus, Jains and Sikhs. 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, she told a reporter.

At the Fremont Memorial Chapel, funeral counselor Jeff Orozco said the mortuary has set aside a special room for Indo-American families to wash dead 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, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

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

But some funeral directors are learning the cultural lessons slowly, Patel said, adding that they are used to requests from the Chinese because the Chinese have been in America for much longer than Indians.

When his mother died two years ago, a mortuary in his home county would not allow his family to light ceremonial lamps, citing fire safety reasons.

The eldest son was not allowed to light the fire to start the cremation because of insurance liabilities.

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

For more information, contact Shah at (406) 727-6500, extension 6314 or Patel at (510) 784-4521.

The information can also be found at the association's web site,

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