Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in Korea: Ancient to Contemporary Times (Hawai‘i Studies on Korea)

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9780824839680: Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in Korea: Ancient to Contemporary Times (Hawai‘i Studies on Korea)

Death and the activities and beliefs surrounding it can teach us much about the ideals and cultures of the living. While biologically death is an end to physical life, this break is not quite so apparent in its mental and spiritual aspects. Indeed, the influence of the dead over the living is sometimes much greater than before death. This volume takes a multidisciplinary approach in an effort to provide a fuller understanding of both historic and contemporary practices linked with death in Korea.

Contributors from Korea and the West incorporate the approaches of archaeology, history, literature, religion, and anthropology in addressing a number of topics organized around issues of the body, disposal of remains, ancestor worship and rites, and the afterlife. The first two chapters explore the ways in which bodies of the dying and the dead were dealt with from the Greater Silla Kingdom (668–935) to the mid-twentieth century. Grave construction and goods, cemeteries, and memorial monuments in the Koryŏ (918–1392) and the twentieth century are then discussed, followed by a consideration of ancestral rites and worship, which have formed an inseparable part of Korean mortuary customs since premodern times. Chapters address the need to appease the dead both in shamanic and Confucians contexts. The final section of the book examines the treatment of the dead and how the state of death has been perceived. Ghost stories provide important insight into how death was interpreted by common people in the Koryŏ and Chosŏn (1392–1910) while nonconformist narratives of death such as the seventeenth-century romantic novel Kuunmong point to a clear conflict between Buddhist thought and practice and official Neo-Confucian doctrine. Keeping with unendorsed views on death, the final chapter explores how death and the afterlife were understood by early Korean Catholics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in Korea fills a significant gap in studies on Korean society and culture as well as on East Asian mortuary practices. By approaching its topic from a variety of disciplines and extending its historical reach to cover both premodern and modern Korea, it is an important resource for scholars and students in a variety of fields.

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About the Author:

Charlotte Horlyck is lecturer in Korean art history in the Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Michael J. Pettid is professor of premodern Korean studies in the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at Binghamton University (SUNY), where he also is director of the Translation Research and Instruction Program.

Michael J. Pettid is professor of premodern Korean studies in the department of Asian and Asian American studies at Binghamton University. The State University of New York, where he also is director of the Translation Research and Instruction Program.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


Considerations on Death in the Korean Context

Michael J. Pettid and Charlotte Horlyck

You can know the next world only after you die.1

In the prime of his life, Prince Myŏngwŏn [1491–1563] became ill and died. After three days he awoke and told this story: At first my body was in great pain, but gradually that subsided and I was calm. Through a crack in the window I was able to go outside. There was a wide and end-
less desolate plain, but suddenly upon arriving at one spot I could hear the sound of a p’iri [flute] and a drum being struck. As I approached, a shaman bade me to come forward, but I hesitated; a gathering of ghosts rebuked me and said, “As a recently dead spirit, you are compelled to take part in these rites,” while blocking my return path. At the edge of the grounds I was offered several wraps of mixed rice and millet rolled in oak leaves. However, I was angry and refused to eat them. As such, I awoke and was living again. Prince Myŏngwŏn spoke to his children, “When one dies, the body is of no use whatsoever, and there is no need to build a strong grave with lime. However, spirits still can eat, so you must always hold ancestor rites with great diligence.”2

In reading the above narrative, recorded in an early seventeenth-century work called Ŏu yadam (於于野談 Unofficial narratives by Ŏu), what can we take of the worldviews and practical processes surrounding death in the early to middle Chosŏn period? There seems to be a clear acceptance of a life of some sort after death but also an idea that death does not sever relationships with the living. This narrative also reveals an understanding of death that does not necessarily fully conform to the ideas found in Confucian ideology and instead offers a much more syncretic view of life after death. Yet the final lines recall the importance of ancestor rites, a pillar of Confucian belief, and thus offer a didactic message to readers of the importance of honoring the dead. In short, the narrative is a blend of several ideas and practices associated with death and the next life, echoing multilayered perspectives and practical approaches to death that formed part of society in both premodern and modern Korea.

The very fact of the inevitability of death makes it an extremely important aspect of human life. We cannot avoid, no matter how we might try, the fate that all humans eventually experience. Yet the termination of bodily functioning is only one part of the specter surrounding death. Though modern medicine has brought into question how biological death may be defined, it can be argued that death is fixed in time and that it constitutes a permanent state.3 Interdisciplinary studies on death have, however, shown that physical death is only one stage in a temporal series of social reframings of the dead, who may transmute into a ghost, ancestor, benevolent spirit, or another mode of being that is continuously reappropriated by the living. The ways in which death is conceptualized and legitimized by the living constitutes several, often temporal, stages, including treatments of the body and construction of the burial site, as well as mourning and ancestral rites. Death socially reframes the living as it changes the relationships of the living with the living, and the living with the dead. As Robert Hertz noted over a century ago, the physiological phenomena are not the whole of death but are rather a part of a complex mass of beliefs, emotions, and activities that create a distinctive character.4

Treatments of the dead are not only driven by theoretical issues rooted in different worldviews but also prompted by practical considerations of a more universal nature. This is demonstrated by several published case studies from earlier and present-day societies around the world. Maurice Bloch’s research on the Merina people of Madagascar, for example, shows that funerary procedures consist, on the one hand, of practical concerns of how to deal with pollution and, on the other, of emotional concerns of how to overcome sorrow.5 The divergences of the logics of death and its associated panoply of practices are clearly infinite, and a core objective of this volume is to draw out the manifestations of different mortuary practices and understandings of death over time on the Korean Peninsula.

The crucial place of death in human existence is apparent from its integration into the rituals, customs, and beliefs of peoples around the globe. In the case of Korea, how were biological and social death reasoned with historically and how are they managed today? How have the different stages of death been interpreted over time, and how have they framed the lives of the living. How does the codependent relationship between the dead and living impact the ways in which the dead as well as the living move from one social identity to another? This volume seeks to provide insight into the complexities, ideology, and practices surrounding death in Korea, both historically and in the present age. The authors of the following chapters demonstrate the diverse means by which death has been understood and socially managed by the individual and the collective and, moreover, that the practices associated with funerals and burials have undergone a long period of evolution and change.

Extending Hertz’s notions about death, Robert Jay Lifton wrote that “man created both death and continuity.”6 While such an idea might initially seem implausible, if we look deeper into his reasoning, his stance becomes clear. For Lifton, death is a type of severance of the “self’s connections,” and the associated fear is reflected in attitudes toward the dead. The new relations between the living and the dead are marked by various rituals. Such practices reflect a “universal dilemma around ties to the dead: on the one hand the survivor’s need to embrace them, pay homage to them, and join in various rituals to perpetuate the relationship to them; on the other his tendency to push them away, to consider them tainted and unclean, dangerous and threatening.”7 Since the living have not experienced death and thus do not know about life after death, all matters, conceptions, and associations with the dead and their afterlife are created by the living. Indeed, as Lifton asserts, humans have fashioned all the trappings associated with death and the afterlife.

Turning to the history of the people living on and around the Korean Peninsula, we can note the same awe and fear of death and a correlating propensity for rituals to mark a death. The relations between the living and the dead are characterized by binary notions such as purity and contamination, separation and continuation, dread and reverence, and the known and the unknown that exist in a setting that can never be fixed but is fed by its constantly evolving social and emotional parameters. Such contradictory elements are brought into balance with elaborate rites surrounding the death, many of which help to alleviate fears and comfort the living. Others serve to usher the spirit of the dead to the next world or life, or from one transitional state of being to another. Consequently, we cannot write simply of burial rites. Instead these intricate practical and psychological processes encompass a broad range of activities, from the physical aspects of a death, such as preparing a burial site and the corpse, to such matters associated with a death as
honoring the dead, allowing space for grieving, and upholding social convictions about both life and death. Truly the ritual practices connected with death are some of the most complex in Korea, both historically and at present. For that reason one can understand much about life in general by investigating the practices surrounding death.

Thematic Concerns and Boundaries

Notwithstanding the tremendous importance that aspects related to death have held in Korea in both past and present times, there has not been a correspondingly large amount of scholarship that has sought to draw out and clarify these multifarious processes connected to death and their related ritual practices. If such a statement is true for works in the Korean language, it is certainly true for works in English. In recent years several substantial volumes in Korean have appeared aiming to fill this obvious gap in scholarly activity. Of particular interest to this study are the few recent works providing periodic descriptions of mortuary rites and practices throughout Korean history.8 The relative newness of these studies suggests that there is significant scholarly interest in death and the afterlife in Korea, and that such studies are opening new areas of research in Korea.

Regarding English-language studies, however, the scholarship on death in Korea lags significantly behind what we can find for China and Japan. For a Korean studies scholar this is hardly a surprise since there are many such areas where this difference exists: the field is simply not as mature as studies related to China or Japan. Yet there are important works in English that address death in part, particularly in a religious context.9 What is lacking, though, is a work examining specific aspects of mortuary rites at certain points in Korean history. Such a work would allow a more complete understanding of the cultural practices related to death at various moments in Korea’s history and also of how different worldviews have influenced understandings of death and the afterlife. Filling this void is an aim of the present volume.

A necessary first step in this first chapter is to define the scope of this study. The editors have decided upon using the term “mortuary rites” to cover all aspects of a death, ranging from the treatment of the body; the steps or ceremonies associated with preparation of clothing, the body, and the burial site; the rituals conducted by the living in memorial of the dead; as well as the burial of the body. Under this term are the subdivisions of “funerary rites” and “ancestor rites.” Funerary rites are concerned with all the events through the burial of the body, while ancestor rites are rituals conducted after the fact of the burial to honor the dead or solicit good fortune. Although the term “ancestor rites” might cause one to think only of the Confucian variety (cherye 祭禮), there are like practices in Buddhism, shamanism, and even Christianity. The authors in this volume have therefore taken care to be specific in their essays as to which type of rituals they are examining.

One question for all the contributors to this volume, especially related to the premodern period, was how to approach these mortuary rites. We can cite four means for doing so:

1. Direct observation of or participation in the rituals

2. Verbal testimony, oral or written, describing or explaining

3. Artistic representations of the rituals

4. The material remains of the rituals10

Obviously the first method is not possible for the premodern period, but a combination of the next three approaches allows us to approximate what might have been orthopraxy for mortuary rites in a given period. Moreover, by using a wide range of materials, the authors in this volume are not writing of a single example in a manner to extend that event’s meaning to all other events. Thus our approach has been designed to utilize as many sources as possible to determine what the shape of mortuary rites might have been for a diverse group of people in various ages.

In keeping with the vast array of practices bonded with death in general and specifically mortuary rites, this volume has chapters written from a broad spectrum of disciplines, including history, literature, anthropology, and archaeology. There is not a single discipline that captures all aspects of mortuary procedures, just as there is not a single manner in which death has been treated. The editors hope that this multidisciplinary approach to how death has been dealt with in practical, religious, and emotional terms will enable a clearer understanding of how people comprehended death and also reveal that there have been multiple ways of understanding mortuary practices.

Nearly every social practice or custom permits multiple understandings depending upon who is describing or viewing the practice. We assert that the notion of multivalence is of utmost importance in understanding any social act, since comprehension of the activity depends greatly on a host of factors, including life experience, gender, social status, and worldview of the participant or observer. Nonetheless, there are also strong ideological currents that shape customs and rites. In premodern Korea these were most certainly manifested in the shape of shamanic, Buddhist, and Confucian practices that in their various permutations over time and space have offered a “technology of the dead” ranging typically from pragmatic guidance on disposing of the dead to theological instruction on how to understand life after death. To this amalgam, in the modern period we can add the Christian worldview, scientific understandings of the biological processes of death, and psychological explanations of how mourning or loss affects the living. It should be noted that we do not construe these worldviews as different entities within rigidly structured parallel “belief systems” but understand them as historical heterologies that informed mortuary practices at different times or often simultaneously. Thus we see them as existing in symbiotic relationships that are always interdependent and in flux. Moreover, worldviews are not static in themselves but are subject to change, and this impacts the ways in which death and the dead are dealt with in practical and theological terms over time.

Returning for a moment to the opening narrative, let us consider the ideological milieu in which the narrative was created. First, we can note the presence of a shamanic or Buddhist worldview in which otherworldly beings and mediators, in this case a shaman, interact. The narrative reveals a belief that death is not a final event but rather one of transformation to another level of existence. Such a worldview is also seen in religions entering Korea in the late eighteenth century and beyond, such as Christianity. Along with the idea that there is an afterlife, we also find the notion of the need to honor or serve the spirits of the dead. While the context of that concept is decidedly Confucian in the narrative, the reality is that we can also find the same belief in shamanic and Buddhist practices in premodern Korea, and in present-day observations surrounding death. Thus it is clear that attempting to delineate ritual practices associated with mortuary rites is a veritable minefield of contradictions and overlapping worldviews.

The fact is that ritual participants were often oblivious to distinctions between various worldviews in both past and present times. Though participants in rituals need not have fully understood these sometimes complex belief systems, this is not to argue that the systems and a complex understanding of death, rites, and the afterlife did not exist. It seems inarguable that throughout the history of Korea and until the present day there are basic ideas or beliefs that cut across social classes, gender, and economic wherewithal and that have influenced or cont...

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