Funerals in Korea

January 05, 2012

Last week I attended my first (and hopefully only) funeral in Korea.

On Christmas day I received a text message explaining that my coworker's mother had passed away and that a funeral would be taking place that week. My other coworkers invited me to join them on their visit Monday night.

As with many things, this experience as a foreigner became something of a cultural exchange where I learned about Korean customs and Koreans asked me how they differed from Canadian customs. It seemed like somewhat of an awkward conversation topic at a funeral, but my coworkers were more than happy to explain things to me.

The funeral took place at a hospital which seemed to have a special wing designated as somewhat of a funeral home. We visited at 9pm on Monday but I learned that the visitation would actually last for three days, beginning the day the person passed away. The family hosts the visitation, staying at the hall and greeting all family/friends/coworkers who stop by and even serving food. It is apparently not uncommon for friends/family to stay up with the hosts all night to keep company and play games.

When we walked into the room, my coworkers deposited envelopes of money into a donation box at the door. We took off our shoes and walked over to the 'display' (for lack of a better word) of flowers (large, white chrysanthemums which are specific to funerals and inappropriate for all other occasions), candles, incense, and a photo. It was explained to me that there would be bowing involved, but I was unsure of specifics. We stood to face the hosts, took a bow which involved the typical at-the-waist bow then I attempted to follow my coworkers as they kneeled before the host and did another little bow-type-thing. The hosts thanked us as we shook hands, then we headed to the other side of the room where there were long tables set up.

We spotted other coworkers sitting at the tables so we joined them. Not-so-surprisingly enough, visitors were indulging in beer, soju, and an array of side dishes (kimchi, dduk, skate fish, boiled pork, tangerines, mushrooms, etc). In a corner behind our table, another handful of coworkers were playing some sort of card game and having some drinks. The cheery atmosphere didn't resemble the type of funeral that I was familiar with back at home.

So there I sat: at the funeral, sipping my beer, chatting with coworkers, and gazing around the room to notice what else was going on around me.

There were at least ten huge displays of flowers around the room that were a good two feet taller than me. These displays contained those white flowers, greenery, and sashes with Korean writing on them. As I understand it, these displays are provided on behalf of organizations and people who are closely related to the family.

All of the male hosts were wearing black suits with a yellow and black band of stripes around their right arm. The number of stripes denoted the person's position in the family: 3 stripes denoted a first son (this was my coworker), 2 stripes denoted other sons, and 1 stripe denoted an in-law relation to the deceased. Female hosts were more difficult to spot; my best guess is that they were those who were wearing black robes and dishing out food and drinks.

Our visit lasted about an hour although, as mentioned, some friends/family would be staying through the night. As we were leaving we met once again with my coworker, the host, to shake hands before we were on our way.

This experience will certainly be logged as one that I didn't expect to have during my time here but it was interesting nonetheless!

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