They said their final goodbyes in the cemetery parking lot.
Squinting from the sun, the tightly knit family huddled together and stared at their phones, mesmerized by the unfolding livestream of the funeral service taking place just steps away for their Ba, their father, their grandfather, Dung Nguyen.
Through tiny digital screens, they watched his son lean over his casket and rest a hand on his chest.
“This is not a real goodbye. I’m going to see you again,” Michael Chambon whispered. They could hear his brother, Bảo Nguyen, sniffle from behind the camera, echoing in the nearly empty chapel at Sacramento Memorial Lawn. Sad-face emojis and condolences bubbled up over the livestream.
This was not how Dung Nguyen was supposed to be remembered.
All 220 seats in the chapel would’ve been filled with friends and family formed over decades in Sacramento’s Little Saigon neighborhood. The crowd would’ve been so big, they’d overflow into the lobby, standing room only. At least 15 Buddhist monks would’ve chanted prayers for him.
Listen to our daily briefing:
After the burial, uncles and cousins and coworkers and sisters-in-law would’ve met up at one of the neighborhood banquet halls, like New Happy Garden or Rice Bowl Restaurant, the spots where Dung Nguyen used to perform. They would eat dim sum and drink Heineken, his favorite beer, and maybe they might even rally for a night of karaoke, just like he would’ve loved.
The coronavirus pandemic ruined those plans.
Instead, only four people would be allowed into the chapel for the funeral. Dung’s daughter-in-law bought 100 CDs to burn the funeral livestream video for those unable to attend. Those who came could only attend the burial, so long as they stayed six feet apart. Masks and gloves would be encouraged.
“It wasn’t fair for him to die like this, and now we can’t have a proper service for him,” said Trang Nguyen, Bảo’s wife.
They couldn’t even buy him a new suit to be laid to rest. The malls were closed.
From Vietnam to Little Saigon
Dung Nguyen arrived in Sacramento almost 40 years ago. Like thousands of others, he fled Vietnam after the war, escaping by boat in 1980 with his wife at the time, his son Bảo and more than a dozen other refugees. Pirates robbed them, leaving them to float in the middle of the ocean for eight days and eight nights before being rescued by a coast guard patrol.
A couple years later, the Nguyens finally made it to America, and eventually moved here, in home on Ernest Way in Arden Arcade. Their English wasn’t great, but they practiced words “one by one, day by day,” said Thu Nguyen, his ex-wife. The Sacramento Bee interviewed Dung in 1986 for a story about refugees settling into the city. By then, he had landed a job in West Sacramento.
“All my American friends call me ‘Little Friend,’” he told The Bee at the time.
Everyone he met was a friend, and before long, practically family. Chambon once asked his father if he ever wanted to live somewhere else.
“No, Mikey, I can’t leave Sacramento,” he replied.
It was like the show “Cheers,” Chambon said. “He wanted to live in a town where everybody knew his name.”
And they did.
Dung’s life was woven into the legacy of the city’s Little Saigon, a vibrant neighborhood of family-owned restaurants, supermarkets and shops along Stockton Boulevard in south Sacramento. He had visited every temple in the area, helped build a few of them. He was invited to at least half the weddings in the neighborhood. He took on odd jobs for fellow refugees and recent transplants. He would clean the ventilation systems of Pho Bac Hoa Viet or some other local haunt, “and next thing you know, he’s doing music for their private party,” Trang Nguyen said.
Everyone agrees he had a gift for music. Bảo Nguyen pulled out a photo of his father singing on a stage at the local Vietnamese Lunar New Year’s festival from a few years ago. “He looks like Tupac at Coachella,” he said with a laugh. At his son’s wedding, Dung plucked the guitar from one of the band members hired for the reception and started serenading the crowd.
“I wondered should I go or should I stay, the band had only one more song to play,” he crooned.
Dung Nguyen was only 65 when he died.
“If he didn’t have the accident he could’ve lived forever,” Chambon said.
A fall. An outbreak. And no visits
The accident. Dung had been trimming a tree in the front yard of a job site in Elk Grove back in January when he fell off a ladder and split open his skull.
He never quite recovered. His children brought him to a nursing home in West Sacramento, where he came in and out of a coma-like fog.
Sometimes Bảo Nguyen could see a flicker of life behind his father’s eyes, like when he played “Woman” by John Lennon. “When I played that song for him, we’d be in a whole other universe,” he said.
They visited every day. Until they couldn’t.
By mid-March, the risk of the coronavirus had grown too severe, a creeping, silent infection that threatened to kill the most vulnerable. Bảo was in the car headed to the nursing facility when an employee called to say visitations would be halted indefinitely.
Besides a couple calls on FaceTime, Dung Nguyen never saw his family again.
A month later, someone from the facility called again. Dung Nguyen’s body was shutting down. His family raced to the nursing home, but were told they would have to stay down the hallway. Bảo and Trang Nguyen watched as the medical team huddled outside his room. When they finally came over with their eyes glazed over, Dung Nguyen’s family knew he was dead.
“He gave up his will to live,” Trang Nguyen said.
Maybe he felt like they had left him.
Funerals during COVID-19
Over the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has upended daily rituals and deepened circles of isolation.
It has left families mourning loved ones lost, floundering as they navigate the ache of their grief amid a global catastrophe.
“We’re care takers, we take care of the families that we serve and we do that through empathy and hugs and touching and trying to do everything we can, they can, to honor their loved ones,” said Erik Hendrickson-Cruz, general manager at Sacramento Memorial Lawn.
In Sacramento County, where the coronavirus has infected 1,255 people and killed 56, no more than 10 people are allowed to attend a funeral under a stay-at-home order meant to slow the spread of the virus.
“It goes against our nature. It’s very hard for use to say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t do that,’” Hendrickson-Cruz said. “We want people to have the kind of goodbye they need.”
Dung Nguyen’s family wants this too.
As his grandchildren and in-laws struggled to hear the Buddhist prayers through the livestream, Trang Nguyen suddenly appeared from the chapel sprinting.
“Hurry, get in your car, quickly! They’re going to let us in,” she shouted. The funeral director was going to get in big trouble, “but she has to do it anyway.”
“She said, ‘I feel so bad but my heart’s broken,’” Trang Nguyen said.
In pairs, they shuffled through the emergency exit in the back of the chapel to see Dung Nguyen one last time.
“For a split second, that’s all I got from him,” his grandson Bảo Jr. said through tears.
Eventually, he was brought out to the cemetery and to his little plot of land.
One at a time, sometimes two, and sometimes even three, about two dozen of Dung Nguyen’s closest family and friends walked up to his casket. They clasped incenses between their palms. They bowed to pray.
Trang Nguyen wept into her brother’s arms as he stabilized the phone livestreaming the service. Bảo clutched the framed portrait of his father.
“This is the best we can do,” said Dung’s younger brother Phat Nguyen.
Just after 1 p.m., on a cloudless day in May, Dung Nguyen was lowered into the ground.
“I can barely see it,” said his older brother Dien Nguyen from behind a mask. He waved a gloved hand and turned away.
This was not how Dung Nguyen was supposed to be remembered. As the small gathering dispersed, one of his grandchildren remarked how nice it is that his final resting place was so close to Stockton Boulevard, the street he had helped build with his own hands and nurture. He would be right at home.
His friends and extended family would be able to safely drive by and pay their respects. They wouldn’t even need to stop.
And some day soon, it would be safe for them to park their cars, visit his grave, and say goodbye in person.