12/21/12

Who Was Bert V. Eutemey, And What Was His Importance for New York City Chinese?

It was not until the 1930s in New York City that Chinese who died could receive mortuary services from a Chinese. For decades, a caucasian undertaker, probably Irish or Italian, performed these services because discriminatory prejudices did not allow Chinese to enter this profession. Unfortunately, white undertakers were not familiar with or incorporated many Chinese cultural practices and beliefs about funerals.

Bert V. Eutemey, a name that does not appear to be Chinese, was born in Jamaica with a mixed English, African, and Chinese ancestry. He became the first licensed Chinese undertaker in New York City in 1930 with his Chinese Cheung Sang Funeral Corporation at 22 Mulberry Street, a name that ironically translates as "The Chinese Wish You Long and Happy Life Corporation." Historian Shirley Yee noted in her recent book "An Immigrant Neighborhood: Interethnic and Interracial Encounters in New York, that since he was born in Jamaica, Eutemey was able to gain entry into the mortuary business using the non-Chinese part of his identity as a white British citizen. His Chinese background and bi-lingual fluency then facilitated his acceptance in the Chinese community.  It is paradoxical that Eutemey's mixed racial heritage, usually a stigmatized condition, actually worked to his advantage in this situation.

 Despite this obvious advantage, Eutemey still occasionally faced some delicate situations such as whether to conduct a funeral using western or Chinese customs. In 1930, an article in the New York Sun, Jan. 8 reported that Eutemey was in a dilemma planning the funeral of Charlie Boston, a Chinese Christian, as different relatives disagreed about whether he should receive a western or Chinese-style send-off. It was reported that Eutemey was prepared for either decision by hiring both an American and a Chinese band.

I had never thought about this problem before I learned about the significant impact that Eutemey had for the Chinese community in New York City. It raises questions of what happened to Chinese who died in the rest of the country, and how did Chinese elsewhere break the racial barriers in this profession?

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