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the funeral | Jee Soo Shin

the funeral

I knew my grandfather was quite ill in the recent months, but his passing away came to me as a shock just the same.  His existence was paramount importance to our family, as he was the head of many generations.  Perhaps it was because I was outside Korea and didn’t quite feel that his end was coming, or maybe I just didn’t want to face it.  He was always positive, and never thought out loud about his own death.  This I am very grateful for, as there wasn’t much time for me to fear or be depressed about the upcoming sadness.

This post, however is about the traditional (and contemporary) funeral process I’ve experienced, which can be typical in Korea but quite extraordinary elsewhere.  (This will be based on my experience, so if you want to read about the hard-core traditional Korean Rites, click here)

It had already been two days since my grandfather passed away, that I finally arrived in Korea.  Typically nowadays, there are three days of ‘official mourning’ in a designated area at the hospital before the actual funeral process following a burial or cremation, but it was very fortunate for me that it was four days for my grandfather, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have had the chance to arrive in time to attend the funeral.

According to Korean Confucianism, immediate family of the deceased need to dress in black and wear mourning costume.  Nowadays, it is simplified(for men, at least) to wearing a suit and black tie with hemp cloth tied around your arm.  The women wear traditional hanbok, but instead of the usual colourful textile, it is in black from head to toe with a white ribbon attached to the head.  During this period, the sons and sons-in-law of the deceased have to stay in the ‘mourning room’ and greet the guests who pay their respect to the deceased by placing a chrysanthemum on the table in front of the portrait and bowing twice in the traditional way, by squatting and putting your hands and head to the floor.  They then turn to the sons standing nearby and talk a little after they’ve gone through the bowing process.  If traditional bowing isn’t possible for whatever health or religious reasons the guests. or indeed the host might have, then they can resort to bowing and shaking hands.  (you can read more details about this process here)

Afterwards, the guests go to the adjoining room to be served a meal and drinks, so that they can stay for a long time and prevent the deceased from being lonely.  It is even encouraged to talk loudly and laugh and drink wine.  For my grandfather, who had 6 brothers(2 of which are deceased), a sister(alive) and 5 children including my father, who are all married and have at least 2 children-all grown up and more than half of them married with their own children, there was no lack of human noise whatsoever.

In the funeral ‘home’ at the hospital, it is also a typical deed to have man-size floral wreath sent by close friends of the family, but nowadays, it is also sent by workplaces and business contacts of the family who have an active social life.  It is considered the more the better for the deceased, because it means he/she will enjoy the journey to wherever they are destined to for the afterlife.

I haven’t been to many funeral homes, but this was a record-breaking number of wreaths.

On the day of the funeral, the immediate family gathered in the early morning to pay tribute (jesa- 제사) to the deceased.  Such ceremony was given twice each year(Lunar New Year and Chusok(추석), the Korean Thanksgiving) in the name of charye(차례), in addition to the anniversaries of the deceased when they do a ceremony called jesa.  Charye and jesa are identical in form.  I go to every charye when I’m in Korea, but hardly ever to the jesa of my great-grandparents.  Now that my grandfather is deceased, I would want to attend to his jesa every November starting next year.  As of the funeral day, we gave what turned out to be the first jesa of my grandfather, and this was particularly incredible that he became the subject of the jesa as one of the ancestors of our family, instead of a living figure next to us leading the jesa himself.  We all took turns bowing to his photograph surrounded by flowers as part of the jesa, and all my cousins started crying when it was finally our turn to bow, but we were kindly told by other members of the family that our grandfather would be smiling at us with pride of what we have become.

My brother, as the eldest grandson, lead our family carrying his photo to the coffin where he was carried to the crematorium.  He was upset that my grandfather never saw his new-born great-grandson in person.  I, for some extraordinary intuitive reason feel that this was the way it meant to be as a natural circle of life – and my grandfather kindly gave way to the new-born so that it could thrive in the family.  This doesn’t have any reasoning, but I just want to believe that way.  I wouldn’t have thought this way if the two had met in person.

We all arrived at the crematorium where we were given a minute to say goodbye, and he was sent to be incinerated.  We had to wait for 2 long hours.

We then took his ashes to his home where he lived for more than 80 years, to give him a chance to pay his last visit before heading off to his afterlife.

The long long day had hardly ended, as we were off to settle his ashes to his grave, and to give another jesa, and have some lunch ourselves.

This is to be the family grave where all sons and unmarried/divorced daughters of our great-grandfather is to be placed after being cremated.

We did the jesa ceremony all over again, and had lunch in the woods nearby.  This was the end of the long funeral day, and we went back to the house so that we could discuss the future of my grandmother, who is now left alone in the old house in the middle of the mountains.  In the meantime, I went to the adjoining room with my cousins to sort out the incense money given to the family by every single guest who had visited during the 4 days of mourning.  This alone took days of work, since we had to sort out who gave whom how much.  It is important to keep track of this so that when their family has a similar occasion, such as a funeral of their family or marriage of themselves or their offsprings you go to them to consolidate and give them at least the same amount of money.

So, all the sadness and mourning naturally dissolved with the amount of time and workload we all shared for the funeral process and everything that came along with it.  By the end of the day, it became a huge family gathering with some relatives seen for the first time in many years.  It was a warm and assuring feeling with lots of love surrounding us.

I’ve been talking about the Confucianism-influenced funeral process, and noticed how none of this involved any singing or speech.  Without any intentional sounds or music, everything was in total silence with just some hired helpers quietly instructing us about what procedure to do next.  Things were very calm and almost meditative, and it was up to each one of us to decide upon our emotions.  I thought that was really nice for all of us.
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  1. Alex

    Hey JeeSoo, my condolences again. I have a question – is much of your family Christians like you? Does being Christian influence Korean funeral? I would imagine Christian faith might have some objections to the traditional process…

    • Thanks Alex. Some of us are Christians, and I think a few are Buddhists, but my grandfather never believed in God or any other religion(other than Confucianism, which is not really a religion per se). Protestantism prohibits the entire funeral and jesa ceremony, so they give a funeral service. Catholics are slightly more flexible in that they are permitted to do jesa, but it’s against their policy to use the little wooden ‘gate’ which you can see in the lower part of the last picture- this is the gate that allows the spirits of ancestors to enter to our world and eat and drink what we provided for them. This is only open during the jesa process and kept well closed at other times. Our family has Protestants and Catholics and we all ignored these prohibitions because family tradition came first. I personally think this is all just symbolism and no one’s going to hell because they opened a little door to pay tribute to your ancestor.

    • Please accept my condolences about the death of your grandfather. Your guest idea is a good one. Other things that you could do are 1.) Show a DVD slide show with photos of him. Have some background songs playing throughout it. 2.) Make a collage of photos of him. 3.) Have guests take turns sharing their favorite memories of him. Hope this will help you.

      • Thank you for your advice, Cleonice! For some reason, I couldn’t reply to your comment for a long time.. None of the things you recommended seemed to be apt for paying respect to my grandfather, although they were obviously very beautiful things to do to remember someone. This got me thinking quite a bit and made me realise how I’m living in many different worlds.. culturally more than anything. The first anniversary has passed and he is still very much alive in our memories. This post seems to be still visited by many people. I’m glad I made a record of what happened last year.

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