About Korean Funeral Culture

The charnel house where my father takes a rest in peace.
The urn of my father. My father passed away in 2007. He was a heavy smoker.

I want to introduce about a funeral culture in Korea.

Nowadays, it seems that there are almost no people who host a funeral ceremony at home in Korea. Except when my grandparents passed away 20 years ago, I have never seen a funeral ceremony being hosted at home. Most of the sizeable hospitals in Korea have their own funeral homes and provide professional funeral services. The services seem to become one of their major income sources. (Nowadays, a funeral culture in Korea has become commercialized with many hospitals, insurance companies, and private funeral service companies realizing that it can be a profitable business.)

When a person dies, the body is usually transferred to a hospital with a funeral home. And the acquaintances of the dead gather at the hospital, and pay homage to the dead. People sit up all night while having food, drinking alcohol, and sometimes playing a card game. All foods and alcohols are usually served and prepared by the hospital. The funeral ceremony usually continues for three days. But there are sometimes five days’ ceremonies when respectable ex-presidents or leaders of religion die.

The dead is washed, shrouded, and put into the coffins by professional undertakers. Only his/her family members take part in and see the process in person. After the lid of coffin is closed, nobody can see the dead any more. We don’t have a process like the viewing usual in Canada or the U.S because it is not socially acceptable that people other than family members see the dead directly although there were viewings when our respectable ex-president and a catholic cardinal passed away. That is a kind of social taboo.

After three days' funeral service, the coffin is taken to a cemetery or cremation facility. Until 20 years ago, burials were so common that countless graves could be seen in mountains , let alone public cemeteries. That was a serious social problem because as small country, Korea did not have enough spaces for graves. However, currently, Korea suffers from the lack of cremation facilities as people prefer cremation more and more. The government or provinces have difficulty in finding an appropriate place for crematory construction because residents who live around candidate places strongly object the construction with the NIMBY mind (‘Not In My Back Yard’). It sometimes becomes a very sensitive political issue.

As far as I remember, the cremation culture in Korea has started spreading since a famous CEO of the SK, a big telecommunication and refinery conglomerate in Korea, was cremated 20 years ago as his will. Before then as well, there was a cremation culture. But it was mainly for poor people who could not afford a grave. Now most people prefer cremation because it is clean and convenient to manage afterwards, and a social atmosphere about the cremation has changed a lot. I think it is very desirable. (The reason that a burial culture was strongly prevalent in Korea was the effect of Confucianism which had strongly dominated or formed our way of living or thinking for hundreds of years. According to Confucianism, burning the dead, especially a parent’s body, could not be imagined. It meant filial impiety towards parents.)

After cremation, ashes are collected into an urn or sometimes scattered into rivers, seas, and forests. But scattering ashes in main rivers is not allowed by law because it can contaminate water. The urn is usually put into a bookshelve-shaped structure in a charnel house so that the deceased's family can visit there and see it any time. My father was also cremated, and then the urn was laid in a charnel house when he passed away 6 years ago. In the morning of the day when I departed to Canada, I went there to last greet him and prayed for his rest in peace. I may be able to meet my father again in three years at the earliest.