The Dead and the Dying in Modern Korea

Frank M. Tedesco
Seoul, Korea

"Aboji........aboji," she cried, "Father.......Father...." breaking from her mother's grasp and throwing herself onto her father's coffin as it was dropped into its narrow grave. "Aboji...aboji," she cried, with heartbreaking tears as she clawed at the narrow wooden box which confined his limbs and kept her from touching his rotting flesh ...This was her last chance to see her father from whom she had been estranged since birth. Mr. Kim was a victim of Hansen's disease or what is better known as leprosy. He was discovered to have contracted the disease soon after his first marriage and before the birth of his daughter who was now clinging to him in his grave. She had not cast eyes on him since she was a little girl and she had insisted, despite her mother's grieving reluctance, to see him as least once before he was buried, perhaps a lesser object of dread and contagion now that he was dead.

No great surprise to many Koreans, Mr. Kim had remarried after having been thrown out by his first wife who was now clutching the hysterical daughter at the grave site. He began a new family and a new business in exile in a leprosy resettlement village not far outside of Seoul. He had done modestly well as a merchant and was a generous member of the sternly sober Presbyterian community who now participated in his funeral. Mr. Kim's love of drinking continued, however, despite the warnings of doctors. His excesses eventually led to liver failure. Hansen's disease hadn't killed him, I was told, but his love of drink and good times with fellow villagers. Although the stigma of leprosy prevented him from receiving the best treatment for his secondary medical ailments, friends and family in the village remained supportive to the end. The village minister and deacon made frequent visits to his home as he slowly succumbed.

The villagers had set up a ceremonial awning and straw mats outside Mr. Kim's home for formal condolence visits and mournful wailing to occur in traditional Confucian fashion. Visitors made two formal bows to a funeral tablet bearing his name placed on an altar of offerings. His second family had washed his body with water scented with incense, groomed his hair and nails very carefully and tied up his limbs in white cotton muslin two days before. The summer was very hot and they wanted to get on with burying the body before it began to putrefy.

There was plenty of sliced pork and rice cake to be eaten by the guests, and soft drinks, too. Unlike funerals in other Korean locales, there was no alcohol, for this was a proper Christian village. Catholics, those with no religion, and even Buddhists, drank at funerals, since sharing drink made grieving so much sweeter. Here no one would drink within the village (at least publicly1) but at the burial site outside the town was a another matter.

Mr. Kim's first wife and daughter were vehemently scolded and almost physically restrained from joining the funeral procession and following the bier up the slippery hillside to the grave site. The men of the village resented these strange women who suddenly intruded into the ceremony. The men and women of the deceased's second family were perplexed. They were stunned by the sudden arrival of living reminders of Father's pre-leprosy past, but they could not deny the pathos that these distraught ladies bore.

A photo of the deceased was carried at the head of the funeral procession as if the departed was still present leading the way to the grave.The daughter insisted on following the coffin to the grave and her mother could do little to prevent her. Little boys followed merrily and played on the grassy slope, mimicking with impunity their elders carrying the bier flower adorned with paper flowers, but the grieving women were scolded again and again for accompanying them.

Family members tossed handfuls of dirt onto the coffin to complete their part of the service quickly once daughter Kim was lifted from the grave, her white mourning gown all soiled with mud. The minister read a short passage from the Bible and lingered briefly at a distance as friends and workers in the village completed the burial of their neighbor.

As the work of piling soil for the traditional burial mound over the grave progressed, many bottles of rice liquor appeared from seemingly nowhere and mats were stretched on the ground under the trees near the work. As friends and workers took turns laying sod on the mound to finish it, they sang songs about the deceased to release their grief. A close friend of Mr. Kim wore a red paisley kerchief tied around his head like a pirate to absorb the sweat as he worked. His face flushed red with alcohol, he scaled the earthen funerary mound and narrated the tragic life tale of his leper friend beneath him with a loud, throaty voice in humorous, folk opera style. What could Mr. Kim's daughter be feeling as she wept in the shadow of the trees which also embraced her father's drunken friends?

I witnessed Mr. Kim's burial in the summer of 1980 during a stint as a U.S. Peace Corps leprosy control volunteer. Mr. Kim's funeral ceremony and the pathos which it evoked returned to me as I attended a public hearing on the revision of national legislation on family tomb sites in 1995. According to a senior government researcher, there are about 19 million graves throughout the country which occupy about 1,000 square kilometersor about 1% of all land in South Korea. The average grave plot is 50 square meters while the average living space per person is only 44.5 square meters! So the dead already occupy more space than the living! An additional 200,000 people - over 80% of those who die in the nation- are buried each year. Their grave sites occupy about nine square kilometers more land every year. If this pattern continues, there will be no appropriate grave sites available in the Seoul metropolitan area at the turn of the century. And none will be available nationwide within the first decade.

When the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs in 1993 proposed changes to halve the size of grave sites and to limit their term to a maximum of 60 years (with compulsory disinterment afterwards) , the move was opposed as 'untimely." Senior officials claimed the public was not yet ready to discuss the dead and the sanctity of the ancestors but more and more citizens are speaking out their tombs in order to create better conditions for the living in the present.

Attitudes are slowly but steadily changing. Although burial is still most commly practiced, the frequency of cremation has increased in South Korea from 7% in 1971 to 19.1% in 1993. Buddhist clergy have been customarily cremated at prescribed sites in the mountains on ornately decorated wooden funeral pyres. A dramatic incidence of this practice in recent history was the cremation of beloved Venerable Songch'ol, a recent Supreme Patriarch of the Chogye Order. His death and funeral received exceptional media coverage. His long, austere life at Haein-sa, the Dharma Jewel monastery of Korea, his nirvana in sitting meditation posture, the immense outpouring of grief by a sea of followers at his funeral pyre and the more than 110 sarira (relics) found among his ashes were the focus of national attention. Ordinary monks and nuns in urban areas and those without money for fuel are brought to public crematoria. About 10% of all lay Buddhists choose to be cremated, too.

The majority of the public disposed of in public crematoria still are those without families, children, suicides, unmarried men and women, unidentified bodies, stillborn babies, disinterred remains and victims of infectious diseases and disfiguring accidents.

An recent informal poll of attitudes among Buddhists by Bhiksuni Haedo indicates that cremation is becoming an acceptable alternative to burial for laypeople. A well-maintained modern Buddhist colombarium as a respectable resting place for the cremated remains of deceased family members is advertised frequently on the Buddhist cable TV channel these days and larger temples are establishing halls of cubicles to store urns as well. Another sign of a maturing attitude toward death which defies the modern taboo about it is the well-advertised sale of garments to clothe the deceased prior to burial or cremation. Consisting of traditional comfortable, baggy pants and top made of fine hemp, mittens, booties, a hood, a pillow, ties to secure the limbs and a long overcoat, the garments are presented as special gifts to one's elders in a handsome wooden box. This garb is viewed as a thoughtful gift to honor the elders as ancestors in the beyond. It is said that a gift of these garments during lunar leap year is a sign of a wish to extend the recipients' long life.

Accurate numbers which correlate religious affiliation with cremation in Korea are hard to come by but a visit to a public crematorium is an eye opener. As the body of an elderly, Buddhist lady waits in line to be pushed quickly into the furnace, a monk may beat a steady, mournful rhythm on a wooden gourd surrounded by family members and friends of the deceased who chant to Amitabha Buddha. To one side, a Protestant group may be singing hymns beside a young church member killed in a traffic accident. On the other side, a Catholic nun may be reading a rosary for an old bachelor .

One sign that the Korean public is becoming more sensitive to issues regarding death is the growth of the hospice movement. The topic of dying is an almost unspeakable taboo to many older and more traditional folk, and a wet blanket on the hopes and ambitions of the nouveau riche entrepreneurs who have created Korea's economic miracle. Yet others have grasped the need to improve not only the quantity but quality of life in the country, especially since material wealth has proven to be so evanescent in today's IMF era. They agree with many in the West who correlate quality of living with an acceptance of dying.

Compassionate care for the terminally ill in the form of modern hospice care was introduced to Korea by foreign missionaries to Korea about thirty years ago. Australian Catholic sisters began an in-patient and outreach program from a clinic in rural Kangnung in 1981 and it soon led to the iniation of hospital and home hospice care in Seoul and other urban areas. A Presbyterian hospital began a hospice home care service in 1988. Hospice volunteers are continuously being trained by major Catholic and Protestant hospice associations including the Korean Association for Death Education.

Buddhists have just begun to realize that they must organize to make their efforts more effective in society. As part of the spirit of reform and social commitment which now is changing the image and activities of the Chogye Order and it lay supporters, the Buddhist Caregivers' Association and the Buddhist Volunteer Service Association now focus directly on training volunteers to help the chronically ill and dying.

Buddhist hospice care in Korea was initiated and implemented by the pioneering efforts of the bhiksuni Venerable Haedo who spent a number of years studying social welfare and the vihara movement in Japan.The first class of 51 Buddhist hospice volunteers completed their "vihara education" course, a three month weekly lecture series, in December of 1994. The group included middle-aged women, a few male retirees, two monks and American. Buddhist hospice volunteer training has continued annually since then even though graduates of the program are not permitted to work in established Christian facilities. It is unfortunate that only Korea University Hospital in Seoul allows volunteers to work in its hospice without regard to religious allegiance. Vihara volunteers are working to establish a home for the indigent dying where Buddhists can die faithful to their beliefs in an atmosphere of acceptance. Sadly there are many cases of feeble and elderly people who "convert" to Christianity to get help in the last days of their lives. Religious prejudice in Korea appears to persist unto the deathbed.

It is not only religious exclusiveness which weakens compassionate care for the dying in Korea. Although Buddhist vihara volunteers will work in any hospital which will receive them many hospital administrators do not recognize the special psychological concerns and pain of the terminally ill. As a result, they do not understand the need for hospice care and do not treat the terminally ill any differently than other patients. Vihara volunteers are disadvantaged by the lack of Buddhist presence in the administration of modern medical facilities in Korea. There are not many physicians and nurses who are openly Buddhist and it was only in 1985 that Seoul National University Hospital opened the first hospital Dharma Hall in the nation. It is encouraging, though, that Buddhist chapels have been established in most national teaching hospitals throughout the country since then. Privately-funded Dongguk University has just broken ground for the first Buddhist hospital in the Seoul area this summer (1998). The Korean Society for Hospice and Palliative Care was inaugurated this year as well.

The network of Buddhist hospice volunteers is continuing to expand with periodic programs and hospice care classes incorporated in general Buddhist hospital volunteer training. Like Christian hospice care in Korea, it has borrowed much from American and European versions of care for the dying; it is too soon to tell what its own distinctive character will be. We are in an innovative and creative time.

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