Dressed in black pants and jacket, a conical red hood on her head, shaman Mai Yang ushered spirits out the front door with a sweeping gesture of her right arm and then struck a gong to persuade the remaining spirits inside the Hmong Funeral Home that they needed to move on.
For about 15 years, thousands of people passed through the doors of the building at the corner of Dale Street and Lafond Avenue in Frogtown for traditional funeral rituals. Now, the first Hmong-owned funeral home in St. Paul is owned by the city and it will soon come tumbling down.
On Wednesday, Yang's ceremony prepared the building for the transition from sacred place to rubble to new development. The ceremony is for the safety of the spirits, as well as the safety of the next people to use the property.
She used paper with swatches of bright red and gold that resembled money, and incense to coax the souls out of the building and back to their graves."This building helped us help our families for a long time," said Xang Vang, executive director of the Hmong American Mutual Assistance Association.
It was a neighborhood landmark and a community center.
When the Hmong began to emigrate to the state in the 1970s and '80s, many had to forsake their traditions for a new way of life.
As a community was established in Frogtown and people earned wealth, old-world customs could once again become part of the mainstream, said Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.
Hmong farmers were able to buy land and use traditional methods. Churches and markets opened.
So did a funeral home.
Traditional Hmong funerals last from two to four days and include hundreds of friends and relatives.
The building has had a rocky relationship with its neighbors over the years. There has been a homicide and a shooting outside the building with the red roof.
Frustration over parking and noise prompted numerous complaints and citations. A suggestion by the city to relocate the home in 1997 was rebuffed by former owner Koua Xiong.
Things have improved in recent years.
"As far as community goes, we were at a point where it wasn't a nuisance," said Tait Danielson Castillo, executive director of the District 7 Planning Council. "But it wasn't profitable for him [Xiong]."
There's a newer home that can accommodate two funerals at once on the West Side, as well as one in Maplewood.
The St. Paul home often had months-long backlogs of families waiting to celebrate their deceased loved ones' lives.
"I'm sad it's closing, but I'm not surprised; the new ones have more space and parking," Her said. "That is more desirable for the community."
The city purchased the St. Paul home on April 30 for about $415,000. The money came from the Invest St. Paul program, a $17 million initiative to improve four struggling neighborhoods that includes Frogtown.
What's next for the site is unknown, Danielson Castillo said. He said many community meetings will be held to figure out the best use, whether it's a senior center, coffee shop or deli.
Xang said he hopes that whatever it is, it will be a place where immigrants of all backgrounds can go.
Even after all the funerals that have taken place at the building on Dale Street, only 25 spirits remained inside on Wednesday, the shaman said.
She spoke to them. She pleaded, cried, laughed and wheedled.
A tip of a bull's horn, sliced in half lengthwise, was tossed on the ground to open negotiations with the spirits. When both halves landed face down, Yang knew a spirit had accepted her offer to leave.
The last three spirits, Yang reported, included the vestiges of someone who was disabled, one who committed suicide and one who was the young victim of a murder.
With the help of her gong and money, Yang was able to help them leave.
As the incense burned in a tin outside, Yang stood on the stoop, facing the door. She chanted and sealed the building from any spirits returning.
The building was ready for its own new journey.
Chris Havens • 651-298-1542