Everyone dies in the end and the customs and rites performed by the living vary depending upon ethnic beliefs, myths, and sometimes from religious ceremonies adopted from, or imposed by, any conquering tribe or race (Spencer 1991).
I decided to describe the views and practices regarding death of the Korean people. I have first hand knowledge to add to the essay because I spent an extended period of time there while I was in the military. I had the opportunity to attend the last rites and funeral of a friend’s relative so I can describe from personal experience what I have seen and what I experienced.
It is common for Koreans to believe that if a person dies from either illness or natural causes outside the home, their spirit will roam aimlessly then will eventually become a ghost ( gaekgwi ) (Woo 2000). Many Koreans take precautions to ensure that a relative who is near death is brought home. It is very important that family members surround the relative before they pass on. It is also interesting to know that Confucian norms are part of this last right. It is customary that women are not allowed to witness the death throes of a male relative and men are not allowed to witness the passing of a woman relative. (Huhm 1995)
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When death finally came it is customary for the people who were present at the final moments of the departed one to wail ( gok ) (Woo 2000). The purpose of gok is to provide a means of expressing the sorrow and sadness of losing someone close to you.
The mourners wear simple clothing appropriate to the occasion. The men wore sleeveless coats and the women would remove all jewelry and accessories and they refrained from even combing their hair. The body would be laid in the home with the hands and feet bound tightly. A relative would then take a coat of the deceased and climb to the roof and wave the coat in the air and shout the deceased’s name out loud three times. The coat would then be brought back down and placed over the deceased during the mourning period. This ritual is called chohon or gobok.
On the second day of mourning preparations are made for the burial. The first step of preparation is the seup(Woo 2000), which is the bathing and dressing of the deceased. The bath water is scented with perfumes and the body is washed. The hair is delicately combed and all loose hair is gently collected. The finger and toenails are manicured and collected also. The fallen hair and clippings were then placed into five small pouches called joballang (Woo 2000). When the body is placed in the coffin the five pouches are also place beside the deceased.
The Koreans believe that death is not the end of life and that they begin a journey beyond the grave. It is believed that on this journey a person needs rice and money. The corpse has rice placed in the mouth. A spoon carved from a willow tree is used to place three spoonfuls of rice in the mouth. As the first spoonful is fed a close relative call’s out, ‘rilch’lConsCogiyo”(Woo 2000), which means one thousand bushels of rice. The second spoonful is placed in the mouth and a relative yell’s, “icheonseogiyo,”(Woo2000) meaning two thousand bushels of rice. When the last spoonful is placed in the mouth a close relative calls out, “ samcheonseogiyo”(Woo 2000), which means three thousand bushels of rice. The money is also placed in the deceased. In China, Japan, Manchuria and Korea, and to a certain extent in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, people are taught that the next world is either a staging-place leading to re-birth in another state or place, or it is a spirit world very much like our own existence. The life one leads should prepare one for the next world. In this world it is not always possible to build up “merit” to sustain one in the next world, and, consequently the grieving descendants can build up a store of “merit” for the deceased by making offerings to the priests, at a temple, and/or at the graveside. This can be done soon after death or at specified times after the funeral or cremation. One way of building up, “merit,” is by the family burning incense (the perfumed smoke rises to heaven to please the greater spirits) and by the burning of paper money, paper houses and furniture. They can also burn paper servants, so that the deceased will be richly provided for in the spirit world (Huhm 1995). At the funeral “old” coins (copies of older style money) are scattered during the funeral procession so that any evil spirits or hungry ghosts will not follow the dead person to the grave. It is assumed the evil spirits will chase after the old coins, because they will be types that they know. Paper money is burnt, so the dead man will be richly provided for in the next world. The usual type of money is “banknotes” drawn on The Bank of Hell. More correctly this should be The Bank of the Nether World (Bruce 1998). In the East, “Hell” does not have the same meaning as it does in the West. Hell Banknotes are issued for amounts ranging from $1 to 500 million dollars. (Bruce 1998) As well as that, gold and silver foil stuck to sheets of paper can also be burnt for those who don’t trust the worth of paper money.
The mourning period was based on factors including the social standing of the deceased or of the family. Usually it was three days long. On the first anniversary the family would hold a memorial service called sosang wearing the same clothes worn the year before (Koo2000). On the second anniversary another memorial service is held called daesang. The family is required to have a few more memorial services in the following months after the second anniversary and it is not until these services are completed that the family can go back to a normal life.
Many of these rituals have been stopped or just modified because of the modern practices in the twentieth century. The three year mourning period is drastically shorter and but it is still observed in different ways. Due to the religious conversions of many Koreans to Catholicism and Protestantism the funeral styles and rituals have been modified to accommodate the changes in life styles. Some Koreans still practice the ancient rites, though, mainly because they are resistant to change and want to follow in their ancestors ways.
Koreans have changed greatly in the last 100 years and have modified their traditional customs. The old ways are still very important to them and are faithfully observed through some symbolic gesture or symbol. One example is men wear black suits to funerals but they still wear an armband symbolizing the coat they used to wear and the burning of money for the deceased is still observed to give the person wealth in the next life.
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