Sweeping tombs ceremony honors Butte’s rich Chinese heritage

By: - May 15, 2022 11:13 am

A Chinese grave marker in Butte’s Mount Moriah Cemetery (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

In the far southwest corner of Mount Moriah Cemetery — even farther away than the space reserved for babies and infants — sit around 30 headstones.

Many look more like a trail marker than the wider counterparts that span for acres in one of Montana’s largest cemeteries. A few have a date, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, with Chinese characters.

The graves sit closer to heavy machinery and road construction located adjacent to the cemetery than they sit to the other graves, a still present reminder of the hardships, exclusion and oppression faced by Chinese immigrants who came to seek their fortunes in places like Montana.

Few descendants remain in Butte or even Montana, so instead the Mai Wah Society, a dedicated cultural and historical preservation group, take it upon themselves to perform the annual Qingming, or tomb sweeping festival. It’s a ceremony meant to welcome Spring, honor the dead and celebrate new life.

In that distant portion of the cemetery, there is a simple squat stone oven, called a “burner” where fake paper money, or “hell money,” is burned to send cash to the spirit world in the afterlife. A similar stone platform stands a few feet away now in a state of gradual, gentle decay. The Mai Wah Society hopes to invest enough to restore the stand, which still has the metal holder for incense sticks. It remains one of the oldest artifacts in Montana and in the Mountain West that commemorates the Chinese cultural impact on the state. As many as 1,000 Chinese laborers, restaurant owners, miners, and merchants called Butte home at one time.

People throw joss, or fake money, into a funerary burner at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Butte, Montana. Burning joss is a way of honoring the dead (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

“If you look around and see where we are, it’s a metaphor for how they were treated,” said author and historian Mark Johnson.

The annual tomb sweeping ceremony marks the beginning of Spring, when the graves are cleaned, food, wine and joss — or fake money — is offered to spirits and willow branches instead of gaudy plastic flowers are laid atop of headstones, marking new life.

“But those willows also have another purpose, they are the boundary between the dead and the living and they placate the dead,” said Pat Munday, a Mai Wah Society board member. He explained to a crowd of around 30 who gathered to clean, burn joss and fly kites, also part of the tradition.

Brooms rest against a funerary stand that was likely constructed in the 1870s in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Butte, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Mount Moriah is one of the few cemeteries dotted throughout Montana to have Chinese headstones or any graves at all, said Johnson, who helped lead the ceremony in Butte on Saturday. And few cemeteries still have burners or stands, something usually reserved for places with sizable Chinese immigrants.

Though places like, for instance Bozeman and Billings, have a few headstones that are written in Chinese, those usually number less than a dozen, even in places where hundreds of Chinese may have called home — temporarily.

“They never meant to stay here permanently,” Munday said.

And it was that temporary nature that helps explain the cultural uniqueness of the size of Butte’s Chinese section, and why few may know of how many Chinese actually occupied the city at one time.

Munday explained that usually Chinese immigrants were interred for five to seven years after their death, but after that time, the bodies were exhumed, placed on the stand, while the clothes and any remaining flesh was removed. The bones were counted to ensure they were all there and then placed in a box. That box was sent back to China where it would be returned to the person’s home village where family and friends could venerate it. That, Munday explained, is why thousands of Chinese immigrants could live and even die in Butte but the headstones number only about 30.

Willow branches rest upon a Chinese grave in Butte’s Mount Moriah Cemetery after the 2022 Qingming festival (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

It wasn’t until after the last Chinese emperor fell in 1912 did some families decide to stay longer, marry and sink roots in America. Most of the graves, Munday said, represent the first- or second-generation of immigrants, essentially those who spent their entire lives in America.

On Saturday, extra brooms, wine and cookies were featured. Despite the chilly, rainy weather, children swept the headstones and burned joss. The cookies were crumbled around the stand. A bottle of wine was poured out around it, too, to appease the spirits and assuage any jealousy and anger.

Judy Chadwick of Butte, Montana holds her broom that she uses once a year at the Qingming Festival, or sweeping of the tombs, at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Butte (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Judy Chadwick of Butte brought her handcarved, handmade broom to the ceremony again, just like she has every year for around a decade.

“It only has one job,” Chadwick said. The broom, given to her as a Mother’s Day gift, is reserved for tomb sweeping.

The Offutt family decided to bring a few screwdrivers and picks. At first father Gabriel Offutt didn’t know if they’d need them, but the tools were put to good use scraping moss and lichens off the names.

“It’s really hard with these Chinese letters,” one of four kids said as they all scraped.

“Next year, we’ll bring more tools,” Gabriel said.

The Offutt family scrapes and cleans headstones in Butte’s Mount Moriah Cemetery (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.