Sunday, April 08, 2007

Day of the Dead

After discovering the delights of our hotel bathroom which turned out to have a small sauna which doubled as a multiple-jet shower room, we reached the funeral centre for 7am which was when the day's proceedings were supposed to commence, though in fact they began behind schedule. We put on our white gowns again for the last time, this time with white gloves to accompany them, and waited. A Buddhist monk was in the mourning room now chanting aloud, but otherwise it was the same as the day before.

Thirty minutes later we went into another room in the centre which was basically a prayer room with a shrine and this time, the coffin; Korean Grandfather wanted his wife to be buried rather than cremated. We did some 'big bows' and then in turn went to the front to help make offerings. When it was my turn, I held something with a soju bowl on top of it, which was then placed on the shrine. Korean Grandfather wasn't present.

After the offerings, and prayers by the monk, a side-door was opened and the coffin was prepared to be carried out, but as there were only five sons available, and the other grandson was carrying Korean Grandmother's photo at the head of the procession, I was called upon to be the sixth pallbearer. Of all the odd things that suddenly make you realise that you've become part of another family, this, along with the wearing of the white gown and all that signified, brought it home. We carried the coffin to a small bus outside which had a slot in the rear for sliding it into.

It occurred to me that in times gone by people would carry the coffin to the place of burial chanting along the way. While traditions remain, technology and practicality have left their mark however. The coach would be used to take us to the mountain-top cemetery and along the way we would listen to Buddhist chants on a looping tape reel. The mood was occasionally broken by the rather jolly interruption of mobile phones ringing. To my surprise, calls were taken.

I learned that the coffin used to be carried to various places of significance in the area but now we would just go to the house first. At the house we stopped, and a large tarpaulin mat was placed in-between our coach and a van behind, half on the country road half off, and guests ate lunch which had been prepared for them. Cars drove by, some slowed down respectfully, and some didn't. In the distance I saw an elderly person working at a nearby farm, and I found it odd that they weren't somehow involved here given that Korean Grandparents had lived in this place for sixty years. Further down the road, I noticed the monk was discretely talking on his mobile phone. Well, I guess monks have mobiles too, this is Korea after all.

While waiting around one of my Korean Uncles taught me, solely through gestures and use of the word "No", that when bowing (with my hands together) I should place my left hand over my right one, not vice-versa as I had been doing. Good tip, although later I noticed Korean Cousin must have skipped the etiquette classes as well because it seemed he was consistently a right over left kind of guy too.

The Korean daughters cleared our their mother's clothes to take with them to the cemetery where they intended to burn them, and there was genuine crying.
There was also much discussion amongst the children and in-laws at this point, because while everything until now had followed a fairly well-established pattern, it seemed that the proceedings hereafter were open to interpretation. More specifically, each region within Korea has its own specific traditions concerning the length of the mourning period and what should be done during this time, but no-one could agree on which region's traditions to follow. Namhae's traditions would call for the immediate family to remain for several days, but the family that now lived in the northern part of South Korea favoured their local traditions which would see them remain for a much shorter period, even if they were from Namhae originally. It shows how even within the context of a Korean funeral there are many complexities and no one unifying tradition practised everywhere.

The issue was eventually resolved, to what conclusion I don't know, and Korean Grandfather, who had possibly remained at the house the entire time, was led out and into a car, then we were off for our drive up the mountain, without the guests, as it seemed the burial would be a family affair on the whole.

cemetery was a culturally telling experience. Husbands and wives are often buried together in Korea, and the tombstones are made with both names on. When the first spouse dies, they are buried, and their tombstone, with the surviving partner's name taped over, is put up. So there literally is a grave with your name on it in Korea. It says a lot about the way marriage is viewed as a permanent arrangement by an older generation, but I wonder whether these customs will survive the modern one?

cemeteries are stepped, and a grave had already been prepared on one step with the help of a small digger. The coffin was lowered in and carefully straightened under the supervision of Korean Grandfather, the first formal participation I'd seen him make. A pair of new shoes were placed in the grave, so the spirit could walk comfortably in the next world. Four sets of clothes - one set for each season - made by Korean Grandmother in preparation for her death, were already in the coffin along with some travel and pocket money for the other world.

While it wasn't appropriate to take photographs, there is a picture here which is a reasonable representation of the scene.

A cloth was placed on top of the coffin and some more chanting followed from the monk, while the gravediggers chatted a short distance away which I thought was rather disrespectful of them. After this we formed a line and used our gowns to fashion a bowl into which the attendant gravediggers shovelled dirt, which was then taken to the coffin and carefully emptied on top.
Another makeshift shrine was put together with food offerings, and we once again each performed our part in pouring soju which was then sprinkled on the grave. Once completed, granite blocks were placed over the grave, and the crying of Korean Aunts grew louder and this time the wailing and cries of "엄마" (mother) were all too real. Korean Grandfather kept his composure throughout though. With the burial finally over, the family ate a short distance away from the grave.

We left without Korean Father, who stayed behind to make sure everything was tidied and in order. In his white robe with tall yellow hat, short jacket and pieces beneath the knees, he cut an odd, if rather sad looking figure as we drove away leaving him on top of that mountain. But it must be said, he has it easy compared to the eldest sons of previous times; tradition once had it that they should spend three years living rough by their parents' grave without concern for personal grooming. So if spending three full days mourning seems a lot, that should be borne in mind.

Back at Korean Grandfather's house, the monk directed us through a short cleansing ritual which involved another two big bows and one half-bow, followed by removing our gowns and gloves, washing our hands three times in a bowl of water and then sprinkling the water from our hands on the funeral clothes three times. It later transpired that before entering the house someone should have thrown salt at our backs or chests as part of the cleansing, but as no-one was at the entrance when we arrived we just walked in.

It wasn't long before we said our goodbyes to various aunts and uncles, who remained there a little longer,
and Korean Grandfather, who gave us some money as per tradition. We headed back to Busan.

No comments:

Post a Comment