Learn about the Chinese repatriation of bones and how you can uncover records related to your Chinese ancestors.
The Chinese people were one of many cultures who immigrated from their homeland seeking better opportunities. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants sought their fortunes in the Gold Rushes of the United States, Canada, and Australia. They significantly contributed to the labor forces by building railroads, working in mining and agriculture, and establishing communities that changed the landscape of the cities and towns they touched.
Many Chinese immigrants believed that they would return to their homeland to die. However, not all succeeded. The development of a practice called the repatriation of bones evolved out of a desire to have their bodies returned to their ancestral home for two primary purposes; the performance of time-honored cultural rituals and to be buried in China’s soil near their ancestors.
The repatriation of bones
The repatriation of bones was the process of returning the deceased’s body, or most commonly their bones, to their ancestral home. When a Chinese person died in the United States, the first burial in a shallow grave allowed the body to decay more quickly with air exposure. After about seven to ten years, the body decomposed sufficiently so that a knife would not be needed (forbidden in this ritual) to separate the bone from the body. The deceased was then exhumed, the bones cleaned, bundled together, and counted for accuracy. Once ready, the remains were placed in a zinc box or urn within a wooden bone box to be then transferred for burial to their ancestral village in China. The family (or family associate of the deceased without family) would arrange for the bones to be shipped back to China. The whole process of preparing the body for its final journey home often took up to a year.
The Tung Wah Coffin House in Hong Kong, established in 1875, acted as a temporary holding facility and was the first stop of the deceased’s second burial in mainland China. The remains were stored in one of the Coffins House’s over 90 rooms until the family was notified to retrieve their ancestor’s box.
The Tung Wah Coffin House advertised in local Chinese newspapers to alert families that their loved one’s remains had arrived. The families could then greet the deceased at a designated “bone box dock” where the remains were transferred from boxes to jars and given to the families. Occupation by military forces, (such as during World War II when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong), or financial considerations prevented the family from traveling to retrieve their loved one’s remains. Therefore, the Coffin House still holds about 200 bone boxes that have never been reclaimed. For those bones left behind, the Coffin House caretakers took on the family’s role of remembering the dead by lighting incense daily and performing rituals.
Meticulous record keeping
The remains of more than 100,000 people came through the Coffin House between 1875 and 1949, when the process of repatriation concluded. The caretakers carefully recorded the details of each case they handled, tracking the arrivals and departures of the deceased. Each record details the coffin received, insurance documents, and names the deceased and their hometown. Some records contained intricate notes on the cause of death. Occasionally, a picture of the deceased was included in their file.
How can I find repatriation of bones records for my ancestors?
After 1949, the Tung Wah Coffin House and the surrounding hospital compound deteriorated. The files were stored away and forgotten until 2003 when records from the 1949 Portland bone shipment were rediscovered, their condition fragile due to deterioration and storage methods. In the last 20 years, conservation efforts have focused on restoration. Volunteers have spent many hours translating the traditional Chinese characters into English, organizing the materials for public use, and placing digital images online.
To access the records and learn more about their holdings, you can visit the Tung Wah Coffin Home archives here. Records, such as those created in the Tung Wah Coffin House, can assist in the genealogical study of your Chinese ancestors. They are a much overlooked, yet invaluable resource, for families whose Chinese immigrants risked much to create a better life for themselves and their descendants.
Are you ready to learn more about your Chinese ancestry? Legacy Tree Genealogists can help you every step of the way: from figuring out your ancestor’s Chinese name, understanding the reasons why they left, to researching your clan’s ancestral origins. Contact us today to get started!
 Judy Nelson, “The Final Journey Home: Chinese Burial Practices in Spokane.”
 Judy Nelson, “The Final Journey Home: Chinese Burial Practices in Spokane,” The Pacific Northwest Forum, Vol VI, Number 1, pages 70-76, Winter-Spring, 1993, Internet Archive Wayback Machine, http://www.narhist.ewu.edu/pnf/articles/nelson.html, accessed December 2020.
 Ming Yeong, “Where the dead come home.”