Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Korean mourning ceremony

Mr Shin is a colleague of mine from the high school where I teach two days a week.
Yesterday his mother was killed in a car accident - she was crossing the street and was hit by a cargo truck. This news came as a big shock to Mr Shin and his friends and colleagues, as his mother was very healthy - it's actually Mr Shin's father who has been sickly and his mother has been taking care of him. By the sound of thing, Mr Shin was very close to his mother and her death has been terribly hard for him.

I was asked by my colleagues at the high school if I wanted to come along to the funeral ceremony or mourning ritual. I really like Mr Shin - he is 3rd in charge at our school which is a very important job and he is much respected, but he is a humble man and such a joker. He always offers me funky Korean tea and speaks to me in Korean - I am getting better at understanding him! Most recently he sat me down for about 20 minutes and gave me a lecture on all the different types of rice cake and how they were prepared and I had to taste them all - someone had bought a rice cake 'veriety pack' to the staff room! Anyway, he is a very jovial, generous and warm character, and I thought it suitable for me to pay my respects along with the other staff from school. It was such a different and interesting experience that I thought I had to share this with you.

So we headed over to the 'Mourning Place' at one of the big hospitals in Sangju this afternoon. Everyone was dressed in dark clothes - the smartest I could rustle up was a dress and a dark brown jacket which even felt a bit too jovial! We all (school staff) gathered outside the Mourning Place and then walked in together. The 'Mourning Place' at the hospital is divided into a couple of 'Mourning Rooms' for each family which is in mourning. The corridor leading into each individual mourning room was lined with huge flower arrangements with ribbons bearing wishes and the name of the deceased.

As we entered the mourning room we removed our shoes (thank goodness I had rememberd to put on stockings just before I left home!!). We then moved into a small side-room off the mourning room where there was a kind of shrine set up for the deceased. There was a framed photo of Mr Shin's mother and some flowers and I think traditional Korean food and drink - I didn't look too closely. We then did two full traditional bows to the photo of the deceased. The closest male family members were on one side of this small room. We then turned and bowed one full bow to them. In the full bow, you hold your hands out in fromt of you and bend your knees and lower your upper body until your forehead is just above the ground, then stand up fully and do it again. As we bowed to the family members, they did a full bow to us as well.

The whole time from when we walked into the room and removed our shoes, we heard Mr Shin wailing and crying. He repeatedly called 'Ayigo, Ayigo, Ayigo!' 'Ayigo' is a word in Korean for expressing emotions: similar to 'Oh my!' or 'Oh my god!' (American) or even better, the Zulu 'Hayibo'. It is sometimes used when people expresses surprise or anger or even tiredness and frustration. In this context it was obviously an expression of grief, intense grief.

We then moved into the main part of the mourning room which was laid out for eating and drinking, with low Korean-style low tables. There was a box near the door where we placed envelopes with money in them which we had prepared at school. They had chinese symbols stamped onto them reading 'in peace' and we wrote our names on them. We then all sat down and food was brought to us: rice, beef soup, side dishes, fruit etc. Mr Shin then came and sat with us. Shame, I felt so sad for him, his wailing sounded so sad and genuine and when he sat down he started crying big sad sobs and Mr Kang, my co-teacher, tried to comfort him and speak some kind words.

Wow, it was so humbling to see this big happy man looking so so sad. He said my name and looked surprised and genuinely appreciative that I had come. Wow, what an experience. He is one of the nicest people I have met since being in Korea and to see him so sad was quite something, a lot of the other teachers were also crying I think he is much-loved and his pain is his friends' pain.

Mr Shin and about 8 other male family members were wearing yellow hemp 'hanbok' robes/coats (traditional Korean dress). They were also wearing tall hats (looked a bit like the pope's hat) and two of them had sticks, kind of like walking sticks. The women wore white dresses with yellow hemp hats and hemp fabric belts. The children were wearing black clothes with a belt of the same yellow hemp fabric around their waists. Two of them came and sat with me as we ate - I think they were quite excited to have a 'waegook' (foreigner) there - they must've been a bit bored!

So together with the information Mr Kang gave me about the funeral/mourning rituals and some internet reading I have pieced together this:
The wailing is very important as an acknowledgement and expression of grief. It is also important to prevent the now wandering spirit of the ancestor from tormenting any living rleatives, as a spirit will always be envious of living souls. The oldest son in the family (in this case Mr Shin himself) is designated 'chief mourner' and is called 'sangju' (coincidentally the name of our town). He must do most of the wailing and greeting of visitors. He is also repsonisble for all the funeral arrangements like coffin, location of grave etc.

The women are repsonsible for the welfare of visitors paying their respects: they have to ensure that there is enough food and drink for everyone. In this case, I think there were also hospital/'Mourning Place' staff helping with the catering. The family must stay at the 'Mourning Place' for three full days. They will sleep there and take turns staying awake at the shrine and greeting visitors all day and night. It seems that the 'sangju' has to stay awake almost all the time. Mr Shin looked visibly tired and he honestly looked like he has aged a few years over the last days (don't tell him I said that!). The ritual looks like it must be exhausting and of course the grief itself must make you so weary. The sangju has to do a full bow with each and every visitor who comes to pay his or her respects. Wow, such hard work.

After the three day 'wake' (during which the body is not 'displayed' by the way, it is stored at the hospital), they will prepare the body for burial and then take the coffin up a mountain nearby and conduct the burial ceremony. Mr Kang told me that many people now cremate the bodies but Mr Shin's family is still quite traditional and they will have a traditional burial ceremony on a mountain. In general it seems that I witnessed a more tradtional mourning ceremony - many families don't wear the hanbok and have such an elaborate ceremony. This is obviously especially the case for Korean Christians, who would have a more western/Christian-style funeral.

So although it was a very sad occasion and I felt quite nervous of doing all the right things, I'm glad I went and paid my respects and could learn about yet another interesting aspect of Korean cultures. Rest in Peace, Mr Shin's 'Ommoni' (Mom)!


EEbEE said...

Wow i read about these funeral processions and just think how lucky I am that our funerals are so simple.

>death occurs.
>body washed and wrapped in shroud.
>family and friends arrive to pray respect and pray.
>6 foot deep hole dug facing Makkah.
>body buried within 24 hours of death.

Jessica Jane said...

You guys do get it over and done with quickly - seems a bit more bearable to me. The ordeal this poor man has to go through really seems a bit OTT (=over the top). Interesting to experience it nonetheless.