I was sent one day to Green Street Mortuary in the North Beach section of San Francisco. This parlour sits in the traditionally Italian section of the city, but Green Street Mortuary is San Francisco’s largest Chinese funeral parlour. More than 300 Chinese families a year hire the Green Street Mortuary Band to give their loved ones a proper musical send-off through the streets of Chinatown. An open car, a black Cadillac once owned by John Wayne, follows the band and carries a large, framed photo of the deceased. The hearse is next in line, and then the family rolls by in a Lincoln Town Car.
My assignment that day was to drive the limo for the huge funeral procession. It would wind through 15 or so blocks of Chinatown. The route was dependent on where the person lived, and if they had a business in the area, or were well known in the community. I could hardly believe I was going to be part of a celebrated Chinatown funeral procession. I sat alone for a while parked inside the stifling black limo. Then at the end of services all vehicles began the lengthy procedure of lining up for takeoff. Driver Larry moved his hearse into formation, and green placards identified all cars in the procession, eventually to end at the cemetery.
The family loaded into my car and I moved forward, but couldn’t really see any action because of the tall floral sprays in the convertible at the head of the line. Family members held up a large picture of the deceased, Dr. Fa. He looked like a guy suited to taking his last ride up high in a sleek, low vehicle.
A group of chanting monks floated out the chapel door. Bells were ringing, brethren were singing, incense was in the air: it was show time! I was giddy with excitement.
As the coffin was placed in the hearse, there was a drum roll and “Amazing Grace” wailed through the rows of triple parked cars. Enormous sticks of incense were lit and the mourners took their final bows in honor of Dr. Fa. A motorcycle escort stopped all traffic. I had both hands on the wheel, waiting for a quick hand signal to make my move forward.
Finally, I was officially part of something I had seen only while shopping in Chinatown. Cymbals crashed and loud drums with green Chinese characters led a procession that snaked for blocks in honor of this beloved citizen on his last journey.
We passed the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong Playground on Grant Avenue; apparently this was significant in Dr. Fa’s life. As we rode on, attendants burned incense and threw paper “spirit money” from the funeral vehicles. At his business the back door of the hearse opened and more paper money went flying in the air. The action was just as intense behind me.
We continued through Chinatown with a noisy farewell to Dr. Fa. Passing his home on Taylor Street, windows from a walk-up were thrown open so any traces of Dr. Fa’s spirit could be released. The timing was impeccable, making it look as if the flow of age-old ritual had been choreographed. Everyone turned to look at us on the densely packed streets. People peered out of city buses, men removed their baseball caps. It was amazing!