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Korean Funeral Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs

The Korean community is known for their unique funeral customs and beliefs, which are deeply rooted in their culture. This article explores the various rituals, customs, and beliefs related to death and funerals in Korean culture so that those attending a Korean funeral can be better informed and respectful of traditions.

What do Koreans believe about death and dying?

Korean views on death and dying and the rituals surrounding death are influenced by a few different religions, including Confucianism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

Regardless of religious orientation, many Koreans believe in helping a loved one's soul make a peaceful and smooth transition to the afterlife. There are specific death rituals that Koreans follow to ensure this peaceful transition, including:

  • Expressing emotions. Koreans generally believe in expressing emotions outwardly after a death, which includes wailing as a form of announcing the death of a loved one. This show of emotions is known as kok and can take place at the time of death and will likely also take place during the burial or interment.
  • Handling funeral preparations. Funeral preparations are traditionally handled by the eldest son (or grandson) of the deceased. The eldest son or grandson is referred to as the sangju (meaning "the chief mourner") -- as the eldest son, he is held responsible for "letting" their parents or grandparents pass away. As a punishment for this, they are responsible for handling the funeral preparations, ensuring Korean funeral customs and traditions are followed, and coordinating the memorial.
  • Preparing the body. Before the body is buried, the sangju will typically prepare the body according to traditional Korean funeral rites. This means washing the body, cutting the nails, and combing the hair. After this, cotton is placed in both the mouth and the ears and coins are placed on the eyes. Koreans will also place a spoonful of rice into the mouth of the deceased before the body is dressed in the suii (a traditional burial outfit) and placed in the casket.

Though these services are traditionally handled by the eldest son, many funeral homes will handle these services during modern Korean funerals. (The sanjgu is still usually responsible for coordinating the services and organizing events.)

What to expect at a Korean funeral

Attending a Korean funeral can be a little different than most traditional funerals in the United States. Korean funerals are typically held on the third day after death and follow a specific order of service, including:

  • The burial site is selected by a "geomancer," who is influenced by and can connect to the earth's energy. The site chosen by the geomancer is considered to bring good fortune to the family of the deceased.
  • A noje (roadside memorial) is held by the attendees to honor the life of the deceased. A noje typically includes setting up a ritual table with a photo of the deceased alongside different offerings, such as fruit, meat, and wine. A prayer is read during this memorial which often provides an overview of the deceased's life and goes over favored memories of the deceased. The point of the noje is to properly honor the deceased and to give their final farewells -- it is meant to provide the deceased with the knowledge that their memory is not forgotten and that those they loved paid their final respects. The noje also supposed to ensure that the deceased does not come back to haunt their family and friends (for not providing a sufficient farewell).
  • Once the funeral procession reaches the burial site, a shaman will typically rid the burial site of evil spirits and ensure the site is blessed.
  • The casket is lowered into the ground and the immediate family members are invited to throw dirt into the grave.
  • There is typically an offering of food, wine, and other foods as a way to protect the burial site.

This is a typical overview of a traditional Korean funeral, it's not a template for all funerals. Connecting with the family of the deceased is a great way to find out the level of tradition that will be followed, as this can vary greatly depending on the family's beliefs and practices.

When attending a Korean funeral, it is important to remember that the mourning process usually includes a lot of emotion and outward expressions of grief. Wailing is an acceptable way to express one's grief -- and many times those in attendance will join in unison for this traditional practice.

Korean burial mounds

In traditional Korean funerals, the deceased was typically buried in a mound situated near their home to make it easier for family members to visit the grave. The burial mounds were often fashioned after mountains and hills and were built from the earth, using materials such as stones and wood. In modern Korean funerals, bodies are most often cremated instead of buried.

What to wear to a Korean funeral

When attending a Korean funeral, it is important to dress appropriately out of respect for the deceased and their family. It is customary for those in attendance to wear black clothes; men typically wear black suits and women typically wear black dresses or other formal clothes. Women should avoid wearing clothing that shows bare skin, if they choose to wear a skirt, stockings should be worn to hide bare skin. If they’re choosing a dress with short sleeves, a light jacket or shawl can be used to cover the arms.

Should you send flowers to a Korean funeral?

Traditionally, food is preferred as an offering instead of flowers. However, in modern times, sending flowers to a Korean funeral is an appropriate gesture of sympathy. The most appropriate flowers to choose are generally yellow and white chrysanthemums.

What happens during a Korean's death anniversary?

An anniversary of death, or jesa, is a Korean tradition that takes place once a year on the anniversary of someone's passing. The family will typically gather together to honor and remember their loved one. A ceremonial table with offerings such as incense, candles, fruit, and alcohol (soju) is set up in front of the deceased's picture. Family members will pray, share stories about the deceased, and offer words of comfort for one another. After the ceremony is complete, a dinner is typically served amongst family and friends to commemorate the deceased's life.

Korean funeral traditions are deeply rooted in the values of honoring and respecting the deceased. By understanding and appreciating these customs, you can honor your loved one in a way that is meaningful to their family and friends. Although there may be differences between traditional Korean funerals in the US and those held abroad, it is important to remember that the idea of mourning in a respectful and reflective way is still at the heart of these traditions.

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Last updated December 7, 2022
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