St. Paul funeral home enlists help from Hmong shamanby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
It's not every day that civic planners ask a shaman to chase away lingering spirits from a redevelopment parcel. But that was the scene yesterday afternoon in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood.
The city of St. Paul recently purchased the site of the old Hmong Funeral Home. They're planning to demolish it and build something new there. But before they call in the bulldozers, they allowed a traditional Hmong healer to give it one final blessing.
St. Paul, Minn. — Hmong elders and cultural advisers were on hand to witness, and even videotape, the ceremony.
Xang Vang now runs the Hmong American Mutual Assistance Association in Minneapolis, but he's always had a fondness for Frogtown. It was where he bought his first home in America, and where many other Hmong refugees got a new start in life.
"That's why we Hmong dominate Frogtown -- to be Hmongtown," he jokes.
And the Hmong Funeral Home on Dale Street was the first of its kind for the entire Twin Cities. For a while, it was the only place where the growing Hmong-American community could hold traditional passing rites filled with food, music and animal sacrifices. People often waited for weeks to honor their dead there because there was no other place like it.
So when community leaders like Vang learned that the building was going to be torn down, they agreed that something special must be done. They decided a shaman must rid the place of any residing spirits before the demolition.
Without the special ceremony, Vang says, the spirits could choose to haunt the living.
"Some people who passed away and did not go to be reborn, in that case, they could stay here, and they could say, 'This is our house, why did people come to destroy it? Then they probably have nightmares for their relatives: 'Hey, my house is destroyed. What's wrong? What's going on?'" Vang said.
The elders recruited shaman Mai Yang of Maplewood for the job. Under an unforgiving sun, the short but sturdy woman squatted by the doorstep, burning incense and paper money. They were gifts for the dead, to take on the next stop on their spiritual journey.
Inside, Yang strikes a gong. She pleas with the spirits to leave the building at once.
"The building is going to be condemened, and they're going to hurt you if you condemn the building. So please come out. Don't live here any longer, the building belongs no longer to the hmong. it will be rebuilt, and by that time, it will be different use, and you should not remain in this building," Xang Vang translated.
Yang said she senses the presence of 25 spirits. All but three agree to leave. She said the holdouts include a handicapped person, a suicide victim, and a young child who died at the hands of her mother. But eventually, Yang said they fled the scene.
The Hmong funeral home opened in 1994. It eventually became a source of neighborhood complaints about noise and parking. When it shuttered late last year, the area's district council approached the city about buying it.
The neighborhood group also took the lead in alerting the Hmong-American community about plans to demolish it.
Tait Danielson Castillo is the director of the District 7 Planning Council. He said many in the community are focusing on the site's future.
"We really have an opportunity to bind community. One, they'll be able to see this, see a transition, but two, now it's an awakening for everyone else in the community to come together and say, 'What do we want next? What do we want to see built here?' Very rarely does that happen. Often, it's the developer who decides what comes next," Castillo said.
People are talking about turning it into a coffee shop or an ice cream store or a senior center. But Xang Vang, the community leader, said he hopes the site continues to serve people he considers "new Americans."
No matter what, the small group of Hmong-Americans who gathered at the old funeral home said they're grateful that they could practice their traditions there for the time it was open. And they're equally grateful to give the building a proper send-off before it turns into something new.
- Morning Edition, 07/31/2008, 7:52 a.m.