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Korean funeral rites reveal a great deal about how Koreans view death, and in particular, how they cope with the death of a close family member. Koreans held that if a person had succumbed to either illness or from natural causes outside the comforts of the home, the deceased spirit would roam aimlessly to eventually become a ghost or, kaekkwi. To ensure that their dead would not become wandering ghosts, family members took many precautions; among them, being present during the last moments of a dying relative was particularly important. Korean families went to great lengths to transport the weak and the weary back to the comforts of their own homes when they felt that death was near or imminent.
Traditionally, funeral rites also adhered to strict Confucian norms delineating clear and fixed hierarchial lines between the genders. For example, women were restricted from entering or witnessing the death throes of a male relative; likewise, men were not permitted to observe the last moments of a female, regardless of the relationship.
When death arrived, it was customary for the family members who had been present during the last moments of the departed one to wail (kok). The purpose of kok involved a combination of factors. While it obviously provided a means of expressing the sorrow and sadness of the mourners at losing a close relative, it also involved the expression of guilt by the mourners who might believe that it was because of their lack of pious actions toward the departed which had caused his or her ultimate demise.
Mourners donned simple garbs appropriate to the occasion. The men wore a sleeveless coat and the women, freed of all jewelry and accessories, refrained from combing their hair. The corpse would be laid with its hands and feet bound tightly together. One of the relatives would then take a coat of the deceased to the roof of the house and called out his or her name three times. Then, the coat was taken back into the house and used as a cover for the corpse. This ritual was called ch'ohon or kobok.
Obituary notices were sent to all clan members, friends and acquaintances. Newspapers and mailed funeral invitations are often utilized for this purpose today, but in the past, servants or hired messengers delivered these notices directly by hand. When the obituary notice was received, it was read out loud near the entrance gates of the house as it was thought bad luck to bring obituary notices into the house itself. The notice was then hung on the walls of outhouses.
The day following the death of the deceased, preparations for burying the corpse were made. The first of these preparations involved sCup, or bathing and dressing the corpse. The bath water was perfumed and after drying the corpse the hair was combed and fallen hair carefully collected. Finger and toe nails were carefully manicured. These clippings were also collected. The fallen hair and the clippings were then placed in five small pouches called, choballang. Later, choballang was placed in the coffin along with the corpse. With a wooden spoon made from a willow tree, three spoonfuls of rice were fed to the corpse. As the first spoonful was fed, a close person to the deceased called out, "rilch'lonsogiyo," meaning one thousand bushels of rice. At the second spoonful "oich'eonsogiyo" was called out, meaning two thousand bushels; lastly "psamch'consogiyo" was called out, meaning three thousand bushels of rice. At this time, metal coins were inserted in the cavity. It was thought that the journey by the deceased soul to the next world could be eased by the rice and money the family had bestowed upon the departed. After sup had been completed came the whole process of wrapping the corpse as well as placing it into the coffin. This process was referred to as yom. Bathed and combed, the corpse was fully dressed in suui, the traditional death dress, which was made from either hemp cloth or silk.
Often, the suui was woven well in advance of death. It was also common to make the suui on a leap lunar Moon for good luck. After the corpse was dressed in the suui, the corpse was wrapped up into a quilted cloth called yompo which was made of hemp cloth; the corpse was then bound with ropes seven times. The coffin's lid was tightly sealed. The coffin was then placed carefully in a dry and secure place within the house. A make-shift shrine was then set up called pinso where pictures and written documents about the deceased were placed. It was here that the mourners received guests. After these proceedings, the family of the deceased dressed themselves in the appropriate mourning attire, called sangbok, which varied in length according to the family member's relationship with the deceased.
The mourning period was based on a variety of factors, including the social standing of the family, the social position of the deceased, and so on. It frequently lasted about three days. In the 18th century, however, the duration of the mourning period was over a month, and called yuwoljang, a ritual timing that was common for scholars. Others lasted in odd-numbered days (three, five, or seven days). During the mourning period, the sangju (the eldest male mourner) spent the entire days lying on a carpet with only an armrest made of rough straws. If the mourners were to wander outdoors, they had to wear a large-brimmed headpiece made out of bamboo called pangkat so as to obstruct the view of the heavens. Enduring these very uncomfortable living conditions was viewed as an expression of filial piety.
On the last day of the mourning period, the funeral procession was held. On this day, a bier was used for transporting the coffin to the grave site.
Before the coffin made its way to the grave site, those who carried the bier out of the house had to stop before the gate and lower the coffin three times as a form of ritual bowing to signal the deceased's final departure from the household premises. The carrying of the bier to the grave site was done with much fanfare. Leading the procession were persons carrying funeral banners. The bier was decorated with dragons and Chinese phoenix paintings. Around the bier, colorfully decorated dolls were placed to guard the deceased.
The procession was led by someone who would sing a deep and mournful song; at the back of the bier, family members, relatives and friends would follow.
At the grave site, a shaman who had been called upon for the occasion performed a special ritual to exorcise the evil spirits from grave. At a predetermined time, the coffin was then lowered and the eldest male mourner (usually an eldest son, or in the case of the death of a child, the father) would take a deep bow. Then, taking some earth, he would cast it upon the coffin. He did this twice. Other family members would then follow, in turn, this same ritual proceedings, referred to as chwit'o. After the chwit'o was complete, hired workers finished covering the grave with earth.
The earth was packed into a mound shape to prevent water seepage. Called dalgujil, this process of packing the earth by stamping on it was done with the accompaniment of music. It also had to be done in odd-number layers (usually three to five layers).
Often, a tombstone was erected at the grave site. As soon as the mourners returned home from the funeral service, they placed a picture and an ancestral tablet on a wall at the front of their house. This was done for three consecutive days. After the third day, family mourners visited the grave once again with food and drink for the deceased, placing them in front of the grave site, where they again made a deep bow. Only then did the family members return to their respective homes. cholgokche, another memorial service, was performed one or two days after the second visit to the grave site. On this day, family members would put away all of the funeral paraphernalia and the mourning ritual would come to an end.
On the first anniversary of the funeral, family members held a memorial service called sosang. On this day, family mourners dressed in same cleaned sangbok which they had worn one year before. On the second anniversary a similar memorial service called taesang was performed. Several more services followed in subsequent months. Only after all these services had been observed could the family have returned to normal life.
Many of these practices have disappeared in recent years; others have been merely modified and simplified. Nowadays, the three-year mourning period is no longer observed or, at least, has been drastically shortened. Often too, people die in the hospitals and families do not escort sick or dying persons back to the place of their birth as they had once done in the past. Many different styles of funeral services are also performed, due to the religious conversion of many Koreans to Catholicism or Protestantism.
Male mourners today will also most likely wear dark suits and an armband made of hemp cloth while the women mourners now often wear small ribbons made of hemp cloth on their hair. Koreans have greatly changed and modified many of their traditional customs; nevertheless, these old ways are still very important to them and are faithfully observed through some symbolic gesture or other.
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Information provided by the Korean Embassy