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Hmong families fear for spirits of the dead after cemetery moves headstones

Youa Her of Fresno looked on Facebook and saw a photo of the headstone of her late husband, Seng Her. It was out of position by several feet.

Other photos showed different headstones that had also been moved out of position. They apparently had been moved by cemetery staff, but why was a mystery.

The text under the photos said “my friend went to visit his grandpa’s grave and this is what he found this morning 2/5/2018  a lot of Hmong graves tombstones are being digged out (sic) don’t know why.”

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Tuesday, Her went to Mountain View Cemetery on East Belmont Avenue to see what was going on.

“I got very worried,” she said. “I came here at 7 a.m. I am very upset. I was in shock.”

Youa Her of Fresno inspects the headstone of her late husband after it was moved back into position at Mountain View Cemetery in Fresno, California, on Feb. 6, 2018. LEWIS GRISWOLD

She wasn’t the only one. A number of Hmong families came to the cemetery to check on the headstones of their loved ones.

“I just saw it on social media,” said Kabao Xiong of Fresno, who has several relatives buried here. “It’s their home. It’s not right to move it  They should notify the families so they are not in such shock.”

The photos were posted originally on a Facebook page of a Fresno resident. By Tuesday afternoon, the photos had been shared more than 1,200 times.

By moving the headstones without proper ritual, the spirits of the deceased are being disturbed, said Yia Yang of Fresno, who also went to the cemetery. “It’s bad for the future of the families, the grandkids,” he said.

Cemetery manager Randy Giovannoni said he learned of the problem when a representative of a local Hmong TV station told him that moving headstones is problematic in the Hmong community.

“The last thing I want to do is upset the Hmong community,” Giovannoni said. “If this is a cultural issue, it was never brought to my attention.  I felt like the guy in Hawaii (who mistakenly issued a missile alert).”

Several Hmong residents came to Mountain View Cemetery in Fresno to check the graves of their loved ones after Facebook photos showed moved headstones. LEWIS GRISWOLD lgriswold@fresnobee

Here’s what happened, he said: Monday, cemetery staff needed to dig a grave for a Hmong burial in an area of Hmong graves where upright headstones are common.

“In this case, it was completely surrounded by markers,” Giovannoni said. “In order to get the backhoe in there we had to move the markers, which is standard procedure.”

The headstones – there were four or five of them – were moved back to their original positions Tuesday, he said. He said this is the first time he’s encountered the issue in his seven-year cemetery career.

Van San of Fresno, who has scars where he was shot by communists before fleeing Laos for Thailand, also has several relatives buried at Mountain View. If a headstone must be moved, advance notification to the family is the right thing to do, he said.

Then there’s the spiritual aspect.

“According to our traditions and culture, we have to have ask for a spiritual ambassador, which is someone besides the family, to come in and perform a ritual ceremony  to tell the spirit so it is not in shock,” he said. “So that way, it will not cause any kind of an illness or harm to the family.”

Giovannoni, the cemetery manager, said he will meet with a representative of the Hmong community to learn about cultural expectations and will make changes in procedures.

“If someone would have explained, I would have done something,” he said.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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