Korean funeral

An old Korean belief states that a person who dies alone will become kaekkvi or a wondering ghost. So, families tried to ensure that some family member is present in the last moments of the dying person. There is more. Women were not allowed to be there when the man was about to die. Men, on the other side were not present in the dying moments of a woman. (1)

When it becomes obvious that the person is about to die family starts performing group of rituals called chojong or initial departing. Those among other things include how to dress the deceased and organize the funeral. A piece of cotton is put on the nose of the dying person so those present will see when he or she actually dies.

When a person dies those present should start to intensely weep and express their sadness. This is called kok. Clothes of the deceased are removed and taken on the roof. The clothes are pointed towards north and the name of the deceased is spoken three times. The clothes are then put in a basket and placed in part of home where the family worships its ancestors. Kind of special curtain is put around the body laying on the board. The head must point towards south. Some food is put on the special table. This food is meant for so called messenger from the other world.

Body is cleaned and dressed during ritual called seup. This ritual has several parts. For example, hair is combed and nails are cut. Some remains of hair and nails are kept in a small bag. Underwear and socks are put on the body. It is interesting to mentioned that some rice, three coins and beads are put in the mouth.

During soryeom ritual a body is dress in outer clothes and wrapped with a special cover. Some ash is put on the bottom side of the coffin. After that a ritual of putting the body in the coffin. This is called daeryeom. Some old clothes of the deceased are also placed inside the coffin. A special piece of cloth is put over closed coffin.

Traditional Korean coffin (photo by Tamaar, Flickr)
Traditional Korean coffin (photo by Tamaar, Flickr)

Korean funeral is held in a building known as a Jang rae sik jang. The funeral traditionally lasts for three days. A deceased is buried on the third day.

Flower wreaths that can be seen during funeral show the social status of the family. Companies send wreaths to funeral of their former employees. Father of the deceased or the eldest male family member welcomes the mourners and organizes the whole funeral. Men wear black suits and white shirts. Some of them also have a white arm band. Women wear a black dress called hanbok and a white ribbon in their hair.

One will certainly notice a table with white envelopes and a guest book. A person should write himself in the guest book and put some money in the envelope. Closer relatives give more money. The money goes to the family of the deceased. It is called cho wi gum. Funerals in Korea are expensive so every help counts.

It is interesting to mention that the body of the deceased is not actually in the present in the room where the funeral ritual is organized. Instead a framed photo of the deceased is placed there together with some white Chrysanthemums. According to a Buddhist tradition people light an incense stick. This act has a positive influence to both body and soul. At Christian funerals there are candles which can be seen.

A person should then express condolences. The ritual is called josang. First you should kneel on the mat and make two and half bows with you body pointing the shrine. After that you express the condolences to the grieving family members. A bow and a short moment of silence will do.

In another room the family organizes a special meal. It is polite to eat some of the food offered there.

What follows is the actual funeral rites. Preparation of the grave site is called chijang. It is meant digging the grave and preparation of the tablet.

During so called cheongu the coffin is carried to the family shrine. In the ritual there the deceased become the ancestor. The coffin is then returned back to the home.

Barin is the name used for the start of the funeral procession. A rite is performed before the procession starts. Guemmyo is the arriving of the procession to the cemetery.

Uje rites are also performed three times to give comfort to the spirit of the deceased. The third time is about 100 days after the death. After that the mourning officially stops.

Various death anniversaries exists in Korea. For example, sosang or “small service” is held 13 months after death. (2)

More and more Koreans decide their bodies to be cremated. It was not always so as Confucianism forbids it as something cruel. There is also a rising trend where people decide that their ashes should be scattered somewhere in nature. (3)

(1) Funeral Rites
(2) Kevin J. Brenneman, A Korean funeral
(3) Sung So-Young, Burial traditions changing fast