Death Practices from a Korean Perspective

Enid Schwartz

I choose to interview two Korean women. They are from the same general culture, but have different religious cultures. For the sake of ease of reading, I will call one woman Kim and the other Helen. Kim is a 23 year old Baptist Korean born woman who has lived in the United States for 20 years. Helen is 36, Buddhist, Korean born, and has lived in the United States for 5 1/2 years. Both women are taking classes at a local community college and are married to military men. I thought it would be interesting to see the differences and similarities among people of the same ethnic culture. I found that there seems to be more similarities than differences.

I started the interview by asking what types of traditions and rituals were used to commemorate a death. Kim was in the room by herself at the time. She answered that she remembers visiting Korea and going to a memorial service for her grandmother. She remembers that the women cooked all night. There were pictures of the deceased and everyone got together and shared memories. She remembers people crying. She also stated that her family doesn't hold memorial services in America. As a matter of fact, she thought it curious that her parents never mention the dead when they are in the United States.

When Helen entered, I told her what we were talking about and she began to share. She stated that she thought the customs might depend on the religion. As we talked further, she also mentioned that the practices in the city were different than in the small village she was from. Most of Helen's stories were about the family practice of mourning in the small village where she was born. She stated that they "cry a lot as son or daughters" and the body stays in the house for three days, five days or seven days. The number of days the body remains in the house seems to depend on the season. In the summer the body remains in the house for only three days, but in the winter in may remain for seven days. She remembers a standing screen which can be folded standing in front of a plain wooden casket. They would bow to the casket out of respect to the person who died. Those who were in mourning wore white. Kim remembers a time she wore a white ribbon in her hair and her mother got angry and told her to remove it because wearing white meant a parent had died.

They wait three days to bury the dead so that the family can come from outlying villages and towns. All the people of the village get together and cook. The number one son and his wife are responsible for seeing that there is enough food for everyone who will come for the funeral, which includes the whole village. The men go to the family mountain and find a place for the tomb. Once the right place is found, the men dig out the tomb. The person is buried underground and then a mound is made above the grave. Kim talked about seeing all these mounds when she went to her grandparent's grave.

Helen remembers her grandmother's body being washed. Someone applied make-up and put on a colorful dress. Her eyes were closed with cotton and a sand pillow was placed under her head. Helen remembers the family and visitors sitting around and talking. She said, "Usually they don't sleep. They just talk and talk and talk." They talk about many things, not just about the person who died. This behavior helps form a support system for the bereaved.

Helen and Kim mentioned the importance of doing the right thing. How much you cry indicates how faithful a child you are. At the time of death it is expected that people will talk about the things the person has done. The death itself is not talked about.

A table is set for eating and a bowl is placed on the table with chop sticks placed on the bowl of rice or fish for the soul to eat. During the service, the door is opened slightly before eating to let the soul enter.

Bowing to honor parents is important. There is a specific way that children bow to honor their live parents. After the death of a parent, bows in honor of that parent are done differently. In front of the food that has been placed on the table for the soul, is a black and white picture of the person who has died. The men and boys bow in honor at the table. They bow together and get up together. The food is then shared with everyone present.

There is a lot of community support. From what Helen said, it appears that the community support was stronger many years ago as people from the outlying community would come to the home of the deceased, even if they did not know the person.

Helen also noted that, as other religions come into Korea and become part of the larger Korean culture, traditions are changing. She also said that the traditions are different in the city than in the villages. In the city, only family and friends come to the funeral, as opposed to the country where members of the community and surrounding communities all come. Shapiro notes that the funeral ritual is an "opportunity to affirm life and the continuity of community ties" (Shapiro, 225). This is certainly evident in the coming together of family and village members at the time of death.

When we were reviewing some of the things we had talked about, Helen started to talk about the death of a child or infant, which is treated differently than the death of an elder. If it is a child or an infant, "they really don't care. They don't talk about it." She went on to explain that she had a brother who died around one year of age. They (I didn't find out who they were, but I'm assuming it was her parents) went to the mountain to bury the baby. She noted that they didn't even make a tomb. They didn't make a mark. She later stated that loosing a baby or a young child is "one of the bad luck." She states that parents will be suffering, but do not talk about it much. She thinks that this may be because they feel guilty that they may have done something wrong "to kill the baby."

"I think that people believe you are born, you are growing up, you get old, you get sick and you die--that is a natural course of life. But when you die, like you kill yourself, that is against the course of nature." When asked what happens with suicide, neither were sure how that would be handled. From my viewpoint, the Korean response to the death of a child is not very supportive. I wonder how parents work through their grief without the support that seems to be present when the person is older. The two women discussed the general culture. They talked about the prescribed behaviors that are expected of the different members of the family. They shared that there are different responsibilities, depending on your status in the family. As an example, the first son and his wife are responsible for taking care of the parents as they age. They are responsible for making sure that everything the parent may need is provided for. Guilt feelings arise if the first son and his wife think they may have been able to do something more to ease the person from life to death.

Kim mentioned that her "entire life has been a conflict." She stated, "My parents are trying to mold me into the only daughter they know how, which is the typical Korean-respect your elders, respect men, hush, hush don't say anything. Whatever I do is suppose to support my future husband....And I'm growing up in a society outside the home where I am suppose to be strong, be my own individual." Jai Bun Earp in "Transcultural Nursing" (Giger, Davidhizar, 1995, pg. 561)

notes that, even in Korea there is an increased movement toward equality because of the changes in the economic base toward industrialism. Earp also noted that the "modern mobility has strengthened relationships between couples and immediate family and has weakened family obligations" (pg. 561). I wonder how these changes will affect the mourning traditions of Korean people in the future.


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Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F317, Spring semester, 1997.
(C) 1997, Enid Schwartz. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at gilbertk@indiana.edu.