Where Immigrants Die

As members of an aging diaspora die in the U.S., they’re forced to reconcile their after-death traditions with the reality of available services.

Meghna Rao

November 26, 2019

Where Immigrants Die
The Death of Vali (c. 1720) (Wikimedia)

Gururaja Rao’s last days followed a familiar routine. He would walk to the Flushing Hindu temple, wearing a Mets baseball cap and carrying a tote bag with folders of bhajan lyrics. He’d lost his voice years before, but would mouth along with the words. Afterward, he’d stop by the Flushing Queens Library, thumb through newspapers, and memorize the political talking points of the week. Occasionally, he’d visit the bustling strip of Chinese grocery stores to shop. Eventually, he’d head back to his apartment.

When he passed away one cold November morning, there was no question of where his body would be cremated. At 87, he had spent more time in Queens than he had in his hometown of Hyderabad. 

And yet, there were no crematoriums that allowed our community to follow the exact rituals ordained by the Hindu faith. There was no space to circle the chamber that held Rao’s burning body, as if he were on a traditional funeral pyre, and his body couldn’t burn for hours into ashes, as it would have back home. 

Instead, we squeezed into Fresh Pond Crematory in Queens. At the press of a button, flames engulfed his body; a minute later, the flames had disappeared.