A Korean Funeral
My girlfriend and I recently made a trip down to Suwon to attend the funeral of her colleague’s sister. The building the funeral is held in is called a Jang rae sik jang (장례식장) in Korean. A Korean funeral will last for three days and end with the burial (발인) of the deceased body.
There were a dozen different funeral services taking place, each in a different room. Lining the hall way were large wreathes made of flowers positioned outside each door. Because of the cost of these they are usually sent to the family, by a company or organization connected to the family, in order to show their condolences. Often prestigious families will have a greater number of wreaths, symbolic of their social status.
The father of the departed stood outside the door greeting people before they entered the room. I bowed and shook his hand while supporting my right arm. The men all wore black suits with white collared shirts. Several of the male relatives also wore a white arm band. The female relatives wore traditional black dresses called hanboks (한복) and a white ribbon made of hemp in their hair. In the past the entire traditional clothing during a funeral was made from cloth made of hemp. The Western style black suits were introduced to Korea during the Japanese occupation in the early 1900s.
On a little table to my right there was a guest book and a stack of small white envelopes. After signing the guest book my girlfriend put condolence money into one of the little white envelopes as a gift to the family of the deceased person. This money is referred to as cho wi gum (조의금). The monetary gift can help with the high cost of the funeral. How much one should give depends on your personal situation and relationship to the deceased person. The closer your relationship with the person who passed away or with the family of that person, the more money should be given. After the funeral, the family will make note of each person who attended the funeral and their contribution. In the future this amount will often be reciprocated.
We entered the room and removed our shoes. In the center of the almost empty room there was a framed picture surrounded by white Chrysanthemum flowers (국화) and candles on a table. The Buddhist custom is to light incense sticks, which is believed to eliminate unclean spirits and rejuvenate the body and soul. Koreans funerals typically show a portrait of the deceased instead of the actual body because the families consider it unsettling.
It is custom to first give your condolences to the deceased first and then to the family. We kneeled on the mat and performed two and a half big bows (절) toward the shrine. Your legs, hands, and head must completely touch the ground. On the right side of the shrine the husband of the deceased woman somberly waited to greet each guest. He is the husband and considered the sangju (상주), which is responsible for the planning and preparations of the entire funeral. If the deceased was a parent the sangju would be the eldest male in the family. This hierarchy comes from Confucian norms. We stood up to pay our respects and bowed again towards the husband. A sincere silence and humble demeanor will be enough to deliver your condolences in these situations.
Next, we were escorted to another larger room for a meal. The food offering is a meaningful part of the funeral and it is considered polite eat with the family. There were many friends and relatives comforting each other and talking. Common food served during a Korean funeral consists of some fruit (과일), Yuk kae jang (육개장), su yuk (수육), rice, and deok (떡). Beer (맥주) and soju (소주) was also available. While we ate the mother of the deceased released a cathartic cry. Her intense weeping (곡) filled the room and drew the watery eyes of the guests. This is called kok (곡) and provides a means of expressing the sorrow and sadness of the mourners and their loss. It was a heart touching realization of ephemeral life.
After parting with the family, as we walked out of the funeral palace, my girlfriend and I discussed some of the older Korean traditions that have also died down in modern Korea. Like most traditions, the traditions of the Korean funeral I attended were not as it would have been years ago. Traditions simplify, evolve, and even die over time. Also, depending on the family’s religion and beliefs a combination of practices can take place. Because the family of the funeral I attended are Protestant, they used candles in place of burning incents, which is a Buddhist tradition. However, the Confucius roots were prominent throughout it, from their attire to the bows to the roles each member in the family played. Whichever religion, belief system, or rituals you follow we will all celebrate the last rite of passage in the end.
To fill in the gaps I returned home and did some further reading about the Korean rite to passage. Thanks to the Korean Overseas Information Service the definitions and process of a traditional Korean funeral are listed below.
- 1. Chojong (initial departing):Preparations are made for the hour of death and immediately thereafter. The family discusses such matters as invocation of the spirit of the deceased, dressing the corpse, assignment of roles and preparation of the casket. As death nears, a piece of cotton is placed on the nose of the dying body, to determine the moment breathing ceases. When the breathing stops, gok, the ceremonial wailing begins. The deceased is undressed, and the clothes are taken to the roof of the house, where the outer garment is waved toward the north, and the name of the deceased is called out three times.The garments are then collected in a basket and placed next to the spot where the tablets of the family’s ancestors are kept. A folding screen curtain is drawn around the deceased. The corpse is placed on a board with the head pointing south. The mouth is left open, and the feet are straightened and fixed to a wooden board. Meanwhile, a table of food is prepared for the messenger from the other world.
- 2. Seup (cleansing the corpse): The corpse is washed and dressed. The fingernails and toenails are clipped, and the hair neatly combed. The loose strands of hair and nail clippings are kept in a small pouch. The undergarments go on first, followed by the socks. Rice is fed into the mouth three times, along with three pieces each of money and beads. After the eyes are covered, the ears stuffed, and a band tied around the waist, the hands are wrapped and a sheet is placed over the corpse.
- 3. Soryeom (wrapping the corpse): The day after seup is performed, the outer clothing and a cover with which to wrap the corpse is laid out. The upper garment goes on first, followed by the lower one. The other pieces are added on to form a square, which is followed by the final cover.
- 4. Daeryeom (placing the corpse in the coffin): Before placing the corpse in the coffin, ash is sprinkled on the bottom of the coffin. A thin board with seven holes standing for the seven stars that make up the Big Dipper is put in place, followed by a mattress. The corpse is set in place, with empty space being filled with old clothing of the deceased. The coffin is shut and fixed with nails, and then covered with the final wrapping.
- 5. Seongbok (dressing oneself): There is a set of procedures the immediate family and close relatives must follow in wearing their mourning clothing. It includes the duration for which the clothing must be worn: three years, one year, nine months, five months, or three months depending on one’s relation to the deceased. The practice calls for up to the third cousins of the deceased to dress for mourning. Once everyone is dressed, the principal mourner, typically the eldest son of the deceased, offers a prayer to indicate that all have gathered.
- 6. Josang (visitors paying homage): Visitors come to express their condolences to the bereaved family. At this time, when the principal mourner wails, the visitor is expected to do the same before the altar of the spirit of the deceased. He then bows twice before dismissing himself. An exchange of bows with the principal mourner completes the act of paying homage.
- 7. Munsang (hearing of death): Sometimes the principal mourner is away when a death in the family occurs. If it is the death of a parent, he must first wail, change his clothes and start out on the trip home. During the journey, and when home finally appears in his sight, he may wail again. Upon arriving home, he bows twice before the deceased. After changing into his mourning garb, he wails again.
- 8. Chijang (preparing the grave site): Once the grave site is determined, the hollow must be dug and the tablet prepared.
- 9. Cheongu (removing the corpse): The corpse, which is carried to the ancestral shrine, is symbolically reported to the ancestors, and then brought back to the house and placed at the center of the open space.
- 10. Barin (starting of funeral procession): The corpse is removed from the house and placed on the funeral bier. Before the procession starts, a ceremony is performed. When the bier passes by the home of a friend of the deceased, the friend is expected to stop the procession and offer a noje (street rite).
- 11. Geummyo (arrival at the grave site): This refers to the process from the arrival of the procession at the grave site to the burial of the corpse.
- 12. Bangok (wailing upon return): Upon returning home from the grave site with the tablet, the mourners wail again.
- 13. Uje (rites to console the deceased): To comfort the spirit of the deceased, which may be wandering around aimlessly after the burial of the body, sacrificial rites are performed three times.
- 14. Jolgok (end of wailing): The day after the third Uje, about 100 days after the death, a ceremony is performed to mark the formal end of wailing.
- 15. Buje (placing the tablet): The tablet of the deceased is placed along with those of his/her ancestors.
- 16. Sosang (small service): This memorial rite is held thirteen months after the death, to mark the first anniversary.
- 17. Daesang (large service): This memorial rite is held twenty-five months after the death, to mark the second anniversary.
- 18. Damje: This memorial rite is held two month after Daesang.
- 19. Gilje (good rite): This memorial rite is held in the month following Damje.
Written by Kevin J. Brenneman