Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at South Korean funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Finnish funeral traditions and Polish funeral traditions, among others.
Note, these traditions may vary depending on the individual and their own beliefs.
Traditional South Korean Funeral
Traditionally, families kept their loved one’s body at home for three to seven days depending on the season. To prepare the body, they washed it with incense water, combed the hair, and cut the nails. Then, they dressed the body in silk burial clothes. They also placed coins over the deceased’s eyes, cotton in their ears and nose, and rice in their mouth. Once they prepared the body, they wrapped it in several cloth layers and placed it in the casket.
When it was time for the funeral, close family members moved the casket to the cemetery. They believed the house doorway was the dividing line between the living world and the afterlife. During the funeral procession, mourners sang while family and friends followed.
Once they reached the cemetery, the pallbearers lowered the casket and bowed three times in front of the gate. Then, they performed the burial ritual to get rid of evil spirits. Afterward, they threw dirt onto the casket and placed food offerings by the grave.
Modern South Korean Funeral
For a modern-day South Korean funeral, the funeral home takes care of the preparation of the body. But some families still do some of the traditional rituals mentioned above. A South Korean funeral is usually on the third day after the death with a visitation. However, there may not be a funeral service if the deceased wasn’t religious. According to the 2015 South Korea census, 56.9% of the population aren’t formal members of a religious organization.
Cremation Taking Over Burial
Burial was the most common funeral arrangement in South Korea, but now cremation has taken its place. During the late 1990s, cemeteries ran out of space so the government changed the burial rules. So in the 2000s, they built more crematories and more people chose cremation. Per the 2014 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report, South Korea’s cremation rate is 71.1% as of 2011.
Some other reasons people choose cremation is that it’s affordable, convenient, and considered hygienic. Plus with cremation, there are many creative ways to scatter or display cremated ashes. According to the 2011 Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs survey, 67.2% of people want their ashes scattered in nature.
Another popular funeral trend is turning your ashes into beads. Then the beads can become a memento, such as a necklace or a bracelet. Or, you can display the beads in a vase or a glass container.
“Mock Funeral” Trend
Have you ever wondered what your funeral would be like? The Hyowon Healing Center in South Korea runs a program where people attend their own funeral. During these mock funerals, people lie down in caskets and have a mock funeral service. According to the center’s director Jeong Yong-mun, the mock funeral trend is successful, as it’s had 15,000 participants since 2012.
Some reasons people participated are that they had a terminal illness and wanted help preparing for and accepting death. While others were just curious about what it would be like to attend their own funeral. When it was over, Yong-mun said “Now, you have shed your old self. You are reborn to have a fresh start.”
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