VISITOR’S GUIDE RULES AND ETIQUETTE AT A MODERN KOREAN FUNERAL
Obituaries are sent out via Kakaotalk, email, phone calls, and even social media channels like Instagram, detailing who passed away, where the funeral is held, and when the funeral procession and burial is.
3-day funeral is most common, but some families do a 2-day funeral. Make sure to attend the funeral within three (two) days of the announcement.
WHAT TO BRING
joeuigeum / bueuigeum 조의금 / 부의금 (condolence money) – 50,000 KRW-100,000 KRW ($50 – $100) is the norm.
Flowers – Individual guests are not required or expected to bring flowers. If you happen to represent a large company, you may send pre-arranged chrysanthemum wreaths through flower delivery shops.
STICK WITH DARK COLORS – Black is the color of mourning, if not available, wear dark (i.e., dark gray, navy, brown) clothes, and avoid colorful clothes.
BLACK TIES AND SOCKS – One thing people often overlook is wearing black ties and socks. Socks are especially important because there are more instances where your socks are exposed than you might expect. So choose the ones that are long enough to cover your ankle.
BEING THERE IS MORE IMPORTANT – There are instances where you can’t keep the dress code (e.g., became aware of the news last minute while you were out). In this case, it’s better to pay a visit than skipping because your presence would be much appreciated, and people will understand.
BE CONSERVATIVE – For females, if wearing a skirt, avoid those that are either too short or too tight.
At A Korean Funeral
- Signing the Guestbook
Upon entering the funeral hall, you will be asked to sign the guestbook.
Tip: Write down your name vertically. If someone made a mistake and wrote their name horizontally, just write down your name vertically right underneath it.
2. Enter The Memorial Room 빈소 binso
After signing the guestbook, you’ll be guided to the memorial room. You must take off your shoes before entering, just as if you were entering a house. You should expect to stand in line outside the memorial room if you happen to visit at a crowded time.
3. Flower Offering and Incense Burning
Upon entrance, give a slight nod to the chief mourner. Proceed to the altar and grab (or you will be given one) a flower from the altar and place it in front of the portrait of the deceased, with the bud facing it, and offer a brief moment of silence. If visiting as a group, the oldest person can do it on behalf of the group.
Once done, kneel before the small table in front of the altar, pick an incense stick (traditionally 3, but 1 is okay these days), and light it up using a candle. DO NOT blow out the flame. Use the other hand (usually the left hand) to wave it out. Then stick it upright in the incense burner.
4. Pay Respect To The Deceased
Step back from the altar, and:
– Do 2 full-bows keunjeol 큰절 (for females, banjeol 반절 is also acceptable), getting down on both knees, palms touching the floor, with right hand on top of the left for males and left hand on top of the right for females.
– Bowing is skipped if the deceased is a minor.
Turned to face the grieving family, and:
– Do 1 full-bow to the chief mourner (he will reciprocate the full-bow at the same time) and offer words of condolences.
Tip: Even if the chief mourner is your close friend, use jondaemal or honorifics.
Don’t ask too many details about the deceased or the chief mourner. You can do this at a later point in time.
5. Condolence Money
Similar to chukeuigeum 축의금 (“congratulatory money”) at Korean weddings, the amount to give depends on your relationship with the grieving family, but as a rule of thumb 50,000 – 100,000 Korean Won (50 – 100 USD) is a safe range. But again, you’re welcome to contribute more should you feel compelled, as the money will go to the family to cover the funeral expenses. *In many cases, condolence money can be given immediately after signing the guestbook.
Amount: General Rule of Thumb
Death of a…
Family member of a co-worker – 50,000 KRW
Family member of a friend – 100,000 KRW
Family member of a very close friend – 100,000+ KRW
Tip: Have Cash Beforehand – Cash is the only means expected, so make sure to visit an ATM machine beforehand, or if that’s not an option, borrow from someone.
① Grab an Envelope for joeuigeum / bueuigeum
조의금 / 부의금(“Condolence Money”) – If you haven’t prepared an envelope, you can get it from the reception desk.
② Write Down Your Name On The Envelope– On the bottom left corner on the back of the envelope, write your name down.
③ Put Money In The Envelope and Drop It In The Box – Make sure not to fold the paper bill and drop it in a box provided. The receptionist will collect it and record your name and the amount to reciprocate at future funeral events (which certainly isn’t something we look forward to).
6. Dining and Drinking
Now you will be guided to the dining area attached to the memorial room. Here, you will be served on disposable plates a set of dishes like rice, yukaegaejang 육개장 (spicy beef soup), jeon 전 (Korean pancakes), tteok 떡 (rice cakes), and various banchan 반찬 selections, along with soju and other soft drinks.
Don’t clink glasses when you drink with other guests.
All right… To lighten up the mood a little bit, here’s a fun clip from Infinite Challenge.
WHY DO KOREAN PEOPLE WAIL SO MUCH AT FUNERALS?
One notable difference about Korean funerals is the expression of grief. In the past, female family members of the deceased were supposed to demonstrate their grief by continuously weeping and wailing because it served as an indication of the deceased person’s value and importance. On the contrary, male family members were not allowed to show their grief and were expected to suppress their emotions. The trend at modern funerals has been leaning towards the reduction in the overt display of excessive grieving.
WHY DID KOREANS LIVE NEXT TO THE PARENT’S GRAVE FOR THREE YEARS?
Lastly, the time required for talsang 탈상, or “taking off the mourning clothes” ( = leaving off mourning period) is different. In the past, to pay respects for the debt of gratitude owed to one’s parent and as repentance for the impiety committed as a child, the sangju built a mud hut next to the parent’s gravesite and dwell in there, taking care of the grave for three years, while wearing the hemp mourning clothes. Upon fulfillment, the sangju could finally take off the mourning clothes, and it was a reverent ceremony. Today, it’s usually done right after the burial, or on the 49th day or the 1-year mark of the passing, with jesa, a memorial service for the deceased.
Some say that funerals should be lively and boisterous (“the more boisterous, the better the funeral”) because being so is considered a way of consolation. For this reason, you will often find people playing card games and talking loudly. But again, it depends on the situation, so use common sense (or nunchi 눈치) and gauge how others act and take that as the yardstick.
Tip: In case of the death of a family member of a co-worker, the juniors of the co-worker’s team are expected to offer help at a funeral. It could be anywhere from guiding visitors, cleaning the dining tables, and neatly lining up the shoes of the guests.
WHY DO KOREANS EAT YUKGAEJANG AT FUNERALS?
Yukgaejang 육개장, or spicy beef stew, is considered to be a staple food for funeral parlors, for which there are two theories regarding its origin. First, the red color of the soup is believed to expel evil spirits. Second, to serve many visitors, a food that is not easily spoiled had to be chosen, and yukgaejang fit the bill as it contains a lot of red pepper powder and salt which act as natural preservatives.
Nongshim Soup Bowl Noodle Hot and Spicy [Amazon] – Try this ramyun noodle version of yukgaejang.
WHAT DO KOREANS PREFER? BURIAL OR CREMATION?
Although traditionally Koreans prefer natural burials in the countryside, the rate of cremation is rising due to the lack of land space and time associated with burial and the management of the gravesite. Instead, many opt for cremation.
WHY DO KOREAN PEOPLE THROW SALT WHEN YOU RETURN FROM A FUNERAL?
When you return home from a funeral, Korean people would throw salt on you at the door before you enter the home, to chase off the evil spirits that might have “tagged along” from the funeral. This superstitious practice is based on the belief that salt, which helps to keep food from spoiling, is associated with “purity” and “cleanliness,” so throwing salt is a purifying ritual. In Korean pop culture, it’s also used as a way to express a strong discontent and insult someone, like an unwelcoming guest. “Get him out of here and throw some salt!” is a popular expression.