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Korean Memorial Services

The importance of ancestor worship in Korea is well exemplified by the sacrifices Koreans traditionally have made to prepare the ritual feast. Going to great lengths during the harvest season to secure the pick of the crop for an upcoming ceremonial offering, Koreans also set aside a small fortune, including a great deal of time, to prepare the ritual foods.

Though much has been changed in recent years, some Korean families still keep and maintain their ancestral shrines which often include an upwards of four generations of ancestor who are ritually honored during this period.

The following are several types of ancestral rituals. These includes the "esangjung" ritual which only takes place during the period of mourning. The " ki" ritual is a memorial service which is held on the day of the ancestor's death. Memorial services that are commemorated on Ch'usok or New Year's Day are called "wch'arye,"; finally the "ymyosa" rituals, conducted in memory of old ancestors, are performed at the tomb site in the lunar month of October.

Once a shrine was set up, offerings to the deceased spirits were placed in the outside hall. Several ritual "greetings" (kangshin) then followed. The first entailed an offering of rice wine; a designated attendant would then recite a written prayer. At the conclusion of the first ritual offering, the eldest son would show his respects by performing a ritual bow twice.

The second offering of wine was then performed by the next eldest son. Following the second offering of wine, another offering was carried out by either one of the sons-in-law of the deceased or by the oldest person attending the ceremony.

Once the offerings of wine to the deceased spirits were concluded, a sequence of rituals that symbolized the spirits' arrival and acceptance of the food and wine was dramatized. These rituals were carried out to assist the spirits into accepting the offerings. For example, the lid of the rice bowl would be uncovered and a spoon settled upon the staple to assist the spirits. Similarly, a pair of chopsticks were placed on the barbecued meat, while all the participants stood in silent respect for the few minutes it would take the spirits to savor the food and the wine.

Broth was also offered to the spirits, a gesture which was again followed by a few minutes' pause to allow the spirits to eat it at leisure. When all the ritual offerings were made, all the attendants at the ceremony bowed twice and the spirits were joyously sent off until the next year. The table with the food and wine offerings was then cleared and the written prayer recited earlier on during the ceremony was set afire.

Once all of these steps were completed, the feasting of the food and wine (or Cumbok) by the family members followed. Consuming the ritual food and wine was considered to be an integral part of the ceremony, as it symbolized the receiving of the blessings bestowed upon the family.

" Ch'arye" were memorial services that were celebrated on national holidays. Presently, however, the ritual has been simplified to a great deal and is performed only on New Year's Day and during Ch'usok.

">Myosa" is a ritual carried out at the tomb of the deceased during the lunar month of October. In the past, myosa was major national event. In some cases, the head of the household spent days attending various rituals. However, in today's modern world, it has become customary to simply visit the ancestors' grave site on Ch'usok.

The practice of ancestral worship has transformed dramatically in recent years. It is now common to hold ancestral rituals for only two generations of ancestors, and in some cases, people only hold rituals for their deceased parents. Also, in order to accommodate their busy schedule, more and more people are holding rituals in the evening as opposed to the traditional early mornings.

In most Korean families today, ancestor worship still remains an integral part of family life and is faithfully observed as such. That these ancient rituals, albeit in revised form, continue to play a significant part in modern Korean society testifies to their inherent importance in the lives of all Koreans.

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Information provided by the Korean Embassy


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