Cemetery's new site designed for Asian families

'Garden of Eternal Peace'
The new "Garden of Eternal Peace" at Sunset Cemetery in Minneapolis borrows feng shui principles, such as a large tree surrounded by river rocks intended to simulate the flow of water. The cemetery is hoping the garden will attract Asian-American families.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

A large Minneapolis cemetery has developed a new burial site aimed at attracting Asian-American families.

The section, known as the Garden of Eternal Peace, opened over the weekend at Sunset Cemetery in northeast Minneapolis. The Asian-themed graveyard is not just an act of cultural accommodation -- it's also a smart business move.

The Garden of Eternal Peace is in some ways unremarkable. Not even an acre large, the site's entrance is marked by a simple gate made of two wooden pillars and a modest roof. But this land is slightly higher than the rest of the cemetery, making it an ideal burial spot for followers of feng shui. Consultant Andrew Hong says the space offers a commanding location for both the living and the dead.

"It's just like when you're fighting a battle, and your enemies are coming," he said. "You're on higher ground. So imagine the people buried -- they will feel very secure and safe."

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Safe, Hong says with a smile, from evil spirits.

Feng shui is an ancient Chinese philosophy that strives to balance the energies in a given space. It has influenced everything from interior design to corporate logos.

Hong has advised clients in both matters, but this was his first cemetery project. He's placed every object carefully, from the entry gate to a foot bridge, which he says gives negative energy a way out of the burial site.

Andrew Hong
Andrew Hong, founder of the Feng Shui Institute of the Midwest, designed the cemetery garden. Hong learned feng shui from his grandmother, who would consult families in exchange for food when she lived in China and Singapore.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Hong grew up in a poor family in Singapore. He says he learned the fundamentals of feng shui from his grandmother, who would give families advice in exchange for food.

Sunset Cemetery officials say the garden is the first in the Twin Cities to be designed according to these ancient principles. But Asian families in Minnesota already practice feng shui when scouting for areas across the state for the perfect burial spot. Many Hmong and Vietnamese families have been known to favor a certain Maplewood cemetery because it's surrounded by hills -- the better to protect the deceased.

It may sound strange to segregate the dead by building ethnic "neighborhoods" right into cemeteries, but people in the industry say it's no different than creating special sections for Masons or war veterans.

"It's easy for the dead," Hong said. "They can communicate with each other. They don't have to travel. Sometimes it's all in our manmade imagination. But you cannot fight tradition. If tradition believes in that, we better believe in it, too."

Inside the cemetery offices, Scot Werkmeister, a funeral director who oversees Sunset Cemetery and several others owned by Dignity Memorial, flips through a catalog of custom granite markers that Sunset has begun to offer. They're meant to appeal to Asian consumers. Some of the headstones come in the shape of little pagodas.

The markers range in cost from about $5,000 all the way up to $25,000. Most are upright, and come with a mantle that where offerings of incense or bowls of food can rest.

Werkmeister says he wanted to build the garden at Sunset after a trip to California, where cemeteries have developed special areas where Asian families could show their heritage and traditions.

He came across Hong, a financial advisor by day and a founding member of the Feng Shui Institute of the Midwest, through an Internet search. The cemetery also hired Earth Wizards, a Minneapolis-based landscape design firm, to develop the site. The entire project cost Sunset about $40,000.

Werkmeister says he hopes the efforts result in more burial sales, and says the Asian garden can be expanded to three or four times its current size.

Robert Fells, external COO and general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, says there's no question that cemeteries are trying to keep up with the needs of immigrants.

Some cemeteries have begun to start hiring more diverse staffs who can speak foreign languages and understand the unique burial customs of their customers, he said.

"It's a business move, because if you want people to use your funeral home and cemetery, you've got to have something of value for them," he said. "And if they come to you and [you] act like it's some alien culture, they'll go elsewhere. You either serve them and their values, or you don't."