I had another interesting insight into the Korean way of life yesterday when I attended a funeral. My school’s principal’s father had passed away the previous evening aged 86, and as is customary here the male family members began a three-day grieving period by the body’s side the following morning. All the teachers at school made staggered visits throughout yesterday afternoon to the funeral department of a hospital to pay their respects.
The body was encased in a huge coffin inside a small room, both of which were ornately decorated with pictures, fruit, flowers – lots and lots of flowers, on huge stands with ribbons attached – candles and incense. Three men, including the principal, wore flowing white and yellow outifts heavily accessorised with hats long pieces of material draped around shoulders and waists and across forearms, and they flanked one side of a mat on the floor. One by one the other male teachers put an envelope in a donation box and then peformed the same ritual in turn, before we were ushered out into an adjacent food hall.
I had just sat down when someone came over to tell me that the principal would like me to experience this ritual and that he’d very much appreciate it if I did. So, following a lead, I removed my shoes, knelt in front of the body, lit a stick of incense two-handed, touched my forehead slowly to the ground twice, poured water from a cup into a bowl three times, made another half-bow and then bowed prostrate directly to the principal, who thanked me. It was a pretty humbling experience.
Back in the food hall, from where you could see the coffin, I learned that its proximity to the body was so that the noise and chatter of eaters would console the soul of the dead, ensuring that it would not feel lonely. Many Koreans apparently believe that a death of illness or natural causes away from the home commonly leads to the soul becoming a wandering aimless ghost, which is why this – and the ritual – is necessary. I was also told that it’s good manners to sit up long into the night and drink copious amounts of soju with the bereaved – which is what a couple of teachers did, judging by their eyes this morning – but I was whisked off the minute my lift decided we’d stayed long enough so as not to be considered rude if we left.