LOS ANGELES — Bruce Lazenby remembers the spring morning when the management staff of Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier gathered in a boardroom, baffled by the events of the weekend.
In two days, the cemetery had seen Dodger Stadium-size crowds of Chinese mourners. Their cars backed up traffic for miles. Every trash can overflowed, and at many of the graves, people had laid out a confusing feast: fruits, vegetables, entire dishes on disposable plates wrapped in plastic.
The staff later learned that the crowds were celebrating the Qingming Festival, a Chinese holiday on which families tend the graves of relatives and leave food offerings.
Lazenby, the cemetery’s executive director, said that weekend in 1991 was a wake-up call.
“At that point, we began to realize how important our Chinese business was,” he said.
For most of its 100-year history, Rose Hills has attracted customers reflecting the region’s diverse history. Former California Gov. Goodwin Knight is buried here, as are legendary East Los Angeles educator Jaime Escalante and Compton rapper Eazy-E.
But in the 1980s, waves of Chinese immigrants poured into the San Gabriel Valley and the cemetery found itself at the center of the largest Chinese diaspora in the country.
The 1,400-acre cemetery, so large that mourners need maps and cars to get around, began a massive transformation to compete for an increasingly lucrative Chinese funeral business that has seen some family “estates” go for six figures.
Over the last decade, it increased the size of the Chinese-speaking staff by more than seven times, to 160. Executives learned about Chinese astrology and stepped up construction of feng shui amenities. Salesmen built relationships with feng shui masters.
The cemetery became part business, part cultural adviser. For Chinese immigrant families, burying relatives in America means putting down roots. But after years of assimilation, some struggle to remember the old rituals.