Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Summoning

I once read that in the latter stages of the Second World War they stopped bothering to teach kamikaze pilots how to land, as long as they could take off and fly the plane, what more was needed? By the same token, I sometimes wonder whether they teach Korean bus drivers how to slow down as well as accelerate. As usual though, it wasn't a Zero that our 8am bus sounded like, but rather a Stuka diving towards its target - for two hours until we reached Namhae Island - at which point, unlike British inter-city coaches, it turns into a local bus service stopping every couple of minutes.

After arriving, we took a taxi towards the 'Namhae Funeral Ceremony Center' (sic). As we approached, I saw the unmistakeable figure of Korean Mother waiting outside for us - dressed in a yellow and white costume - and I began to realise just how complicated things were likely to get.

Large arrangements of flowers sat outside the centre and as promised, there were already plenty of people there, though not as many as I had expected. As far as I could tell the centre consisted of two sets of three rooms, allowing two funeral ceremonies to be held simultaneously. Our three rooms - presumably much like the other set - comprised a large traditional Korean dining area (low tables and no chairs of course) where staff cooked for us, a small mourning room with a picture of Korean Grandmother on a shrine, and a third rest room or changing area. The notion is that people will eat, rest and mourn in turn.

The immediate female relatives - daughters and daughters-in-law - wore two-piece white gowns with a thin and roughly-made hessian or sackcloth-like yellow cloth jackets (made of hemp apparently). White cloths were placed on their heads tied with yellow rope fashioning a makeshift hat. The immediate male relatives - sons and sons-in-law - wore one-piece white gowns with similar rough yellow jackets, and oddly, strips of the same material beneath their knees, giving them the appearance of wearing leg-warmers at first glance. Unlike the women, there were no white cloth hats but rather yellow ones
from the thin material of different sizes and designs - I eventually worked out that the sons were wearing the biggest hats and the sons-in-law the smaller ones. Some of the men also carried white and beige sticks made of bamboo, the purpose of which wasn't clear. Much as I'd have liked to take lots of photos of this fascinating spectacle, it was of course, not appropriate to the occasion. In fact, when I got home, it was really hard to find any images with the clothes on the Internet, but I eventually located this picture.

On entering we immediately offered our condolences to Korean Father and Grandfather. After sixty years of marriage, I expected Grandfather to be visibly upset but in fact he seemed to be taking things very well. Perhaps it hadn't come as such a surprise - his wife had been frail for some time.

There were some initial 'big bows' (full to the ground) to do in the mourning room, after which I ate rice with some cold fish. Not long after this, we had to put on white gowns ourselves, but there were no yellow accessories for us. More bowing followed, some talking to relatives, and a lot of sitting around doing nothing at all, privately contemplating the Universe. Buddhist chants looped endlessly from the mourning room, along with the banging of a wooden instrument called a '목탁' (mogtag).

I'd been warned that Korean mourning was a potentially hysterical affair, and sure enough plenty of close-harmony wailing from my Korean Aunts resonated into the dining area. But while some may be genuine, there is an expectation that this is what has to be done. One Korean Aunt came out of the mourning room and said to another, "my throat's sore, it's your turn now", which probably sums that up. There would be plenty of genuine crying later though. One of the Korean Aunts grabbed me by the arm and made tear gestures '내일' (tomorrow). Tomorrow I should try and cry if I could.

The first time I looked at the clock it was 12:30, as the afternoon dragged on it seemed every subsequent time I looked at it, it had advanced even less than the previous occasion. I didn't know how I was going to sit through the next nine hours before we slept here on the floor.We were of course, completely at the beck and call of Korean Parents, so when they suggested we go for a walk outside we jumped at the chance, if only for a change of scenery. Shortly after discovering there was nowhere to really walk nearby - at least not wearing our white gowns - we went back inside and my wife, feeling even more ill now, tried to sleep. Korean Parents took pity and suggested we go to a hotel nearby where we could stay the night in relative comfort. So much as I wanted to dine out on the story of how I spent the night in a funeral home once, I was only too willing to put the seemingly endless sitting around behind me, and off we went.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Modern Korean funerals have become rather mechanical & commercialized, but this lovely film will show you the cultural & emotional logic behind the "hysterics." :-)

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