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Culture Etiquette Superstitions & Myths

Korean Funeral – How Koreans say goodbye. Traditional vs. Modern approach.

CONTINUED FROM What do Koreans believe about afterlife? Mythical creatures and ghostly beings of Korea.

TRADITIONAL VS. MODERN KOREAN FUNERALS

Time-traveling Korean dramas, like Daleui Yeonin – Bobo Gyeongshim Ryeo 달의 연인 – 보보경심 려 (Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo SBS, 2016) where the main characters go back and forth in time through a mysterious portal, actually make a great educational resource because they make a visual comparison between the traditional and modern lifestyles of Korea. But at the same time, it can create a bigger confusion if you don’t understand the details. Among many, how Korean people deal with the death of a loved one has dramatically changed. With that said, a quick comparison chart should get you up to speed.

HOW LONG ARE KOREAN FUNERALS?

In the past, Korean funerals begin upon the departing of a loved one and can take place for 3,5,7, or 9 days (odd numbers are considered auspicious), depending on the social status and family traditions. During the time, an extremely elaborate and arduous set of rites are carried out, because they represent the essence of the Confucianist Korean philosophy that put the utmost importance on the filial piety and strict hierarchy among family members. And doing so is believed to ensure a smooth transition of a loved one into the afterlife. But due to the modernization and high-paced society where people lack both time and space, people have been leaning toward a practical approach, and traditional funerals have been simplified, with the three day version being the norm and occasional two day funerals. Despite the transformation, the essential elements remained, and they still stand as the core of the Korean funerals today. Let’s take a look at the typical order of a modern Korean funeral for someone’s parent:

Bugo 부고 Obituary Notice

Binso 빈소 Mortuary / Memorial Hall Set-Up

Yeomseup 염습 Clothing the Body of the Deceased

Ipgwan 입관 Placing in the Coffin

Seongbok 성복 Wearing Mourning Clothes

Munsang (Jomun) 문상 (조문) Receiving Guest Mourners

— takes place on the last day of the funeral —

Balin 발인 Carrying Out of the Coffin / Procession

Anjang 안장 Burial

WHERE DO KOREAN FUNERALS TAKE PLACE?

Where they take place has changed too. In the past, funerals were held at the homes of the deceased and that’s how it’s still done in rural areas. In the cities, people mostly choose to spend their last days in the care of professional care centers, such as nursing homes and hospitals. Large hospitals also have funeral halls within their complex, which makes it easier for the families.

WHO ORGANIZES THE FUNERALS?

Traditionally, the sangju 상주 (chief mourner), the oldest son or the grandson of the deceased, is responsible for organizing, managing the funeral, greeting visitors, as well as looking for the best gravesite for burial. In the past, the sangju was not allowed to wash hair or shave during the funeral as an expression of grief. Today, the burden has been lifted significantly, thanks to the emergence of funeral service providers. At hospital funeral halls, they have funeral advisors who oversee every aspect of the funerals.

Bier Belonging to the Goryeongdaek House of the Jeonju Choe Clan, Sancheong, Important Folklore Cultural Heritage of Republic of Korea No. 230
국립민속박물관 (National Folk Museum of Korea) / KOGL Type 1 (kogl.or.kr/open/info/license_info/by.do)

WHO’S INVOLVED WITH KOREAN FUNERALS?

In the past, funerals involved the whole village. When the grieving family members were busy carrying out a myriad of rites, preparing food and greeting guests (and on top of that, doing it for 3,5,7, and even 9 days drains their energy to complete exhaustion), people from the village gathered together and offered help. Today, with the help of professional service providers, grieving families can focus more on the greeting of the guests. As a result of the change mentioned above, getting to the burial site has changed significantly. In the past, sangyeo 상여 or the funeral bier was carried together by the village neighbors on foot. The process has been replaced by a hearse.

WHAT DO PEOPLE WEAR AT KOREAN FUNERALS?

What to wear is different, too. In the past, sangbok 상복(mourning barb) made of off-white sambe 삼베 (hemp cloth) was worn. It was composed of hemp dress, hemp hat, called gulgeon 굴건 and jipshin 짚신 (straw shoes). According to Professor Lee Cheol-yeong at Eulji University, hemp clothes were traditionally worn by sinners, and you are a sinner who lacks filial piety because you “let your parent die.” and the hat is put on to hide the head and face from the heavens. Today, grieving families wear modern formal attire, black in color. The sangju 상주(chief mourner) puts on a hemp armband with stripes, although it’s unclear what the origin of the stripes and their meaning are, it’s considered a result of a mixture of traditional and modern elements.

Traditional Korean funeral
A funeral scene from Yunaeui Geori 유나의 거리 (Steal Heart, JTBC, 2014)

STORY CONTINUES Visitor’s guide to a Korean funeral – Learn the rules and etiquette to avoid social faux pas.

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