May 10, 2010

Burying the Dead

If you have ever traveled along a Korean highway you are certain to have noticed burial mounds scattered across the landscape. If you have seen a cemetary I would be surprised. I have never seen a graveyard in my travels here. I used to believe that these were ancient burial sites and was shocked at how numerous they were. Now I know that many are returned to the Earth in this manner.

They are simply mounds of Earth. Some are more elaborate and have wooden or cement supports around the base. The majority are simply small circular hills with a stone marker in the vicinity. Most are impeccably lanscaped. Many families are kept together after death in a small plot of land which more often than not sits on the side of a mountain.

The deceased is placed into a simple coffin of six pieces of wood. The coffin is supposedly placed upright into the ground and covered with Earth. This is difficult for me to believe as most of them are not very large. The four sides of the coffin represent the cardinal directions. The top and bottom represent heaven and Earth. Most often the dead face South. Others face a landmark such as a mountain.

The eldest son has the job of burial site upkeep on Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). I am not sure if a visit of the family is required on that holiday but I believe it is. Families tend to visit these sites several times a year. The mood of these visits is not somber; rather it seems to be a celebration of life. Picnics, games, and a joyous mood seem to be the rule for the most part. However, at some point the families will stand in silence and offer food and drink upon the grave. Yes, literally placing food and pouring drink onto and into the Earth.

Many Koreans now are simply cremated. The limited land and large population could not bear this practice ad infinitum. It should be noted that I have seen grave markers with the cross as well. It is not a practice entirely of any religion but rather uniquely Korean.


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