What to do at a Korean funeral?

Written by on October 2, 2013 in Lifestyle
Yongdong Severance Hospital

(Picture credit: Yongdong Severance Hospital)

Living abroad in a foreign country means one gets exposed to many different cultural experiences, from baby showers to birthday celebrations, and weddings to funerals. In the two years that I’ve lived in Korea, I’ve been to a couple of funerals.

Because death is a hardly a conversational subject, when I had to attend one recently, I had to ask my colleagues what is expected of oneself at such a ceremony. This post is about my experiences, what I’ve observed and may differ depending on the type of customs practiced. Kevin J. Brenneman over at SeoulSite has penned a good summary of the traditional Korean funeral rites if you wish to understand more.

The word for “funeral” in Korean is “장례식” in Korean. And the place where the funeral is held is called 장례식장, which is usually in a separate building at a hospital.

Next to the reception desk of the building, you’d find counters providing white envelopes for the condolence money. This money is called 조의금 (Editor’s note : it can also be called 부의금, in some  cases 부조금) . The amount to give depends on your relationship with the grieving family (the closer you are, the more you should give) and is meant to help with the costs of holding the funeral. If you don’t have cash on hand, look around and you should be able to find a automated teller machine nearby. If you’re attending the death of a family member of a co-worker, the average amount you should give is 50,000 won. It is also customary to write your name behind the white envelope. The value of money is usually noted and reciprocated at future funeral events. (Editor’s note: the amount varies in odd numbers, 30,000/50,000 or 100,000/200,000 if you are closer. If you know the person from a social group/gathering for example a book club the members might choose to pool the collective amount, leaving the individual to choose a certain amount. In this case the members may choose to send a representative to take the money instead of having everyone attend. However if you are not a Korean you are usually not expected to keep to this custom.)

At any given time, typically there would be several grieving families in separate halls, or rooms, adjacent to each other. Don’t be surprised at the efficiency of such an establishment as I learnt from my colleagues that the passing away of a person is even more significant than the union of two people. Both events speak volumes about the institution of the family unit in Korea.

*Editor’s note: usually when in time conflicts with a wedding and a funeral one is recommended to attend the latter, while some also say one should not go from a funeral to a wedding/birth of a baby. However it closely depends on your personal relationship with the person.

Once you enter the hall, you’ll need to sign on the guestbook and drop the white envelope in a box. After which, you’ll be guided to the memorial room (you have to take off your shoes before stepping in). If you happen to visit at a crowded time, you’ll have to stand in line outside the room and wait to pay your respects to the deceased.

What you should do next depends on the custom which the grieving family follows. Some may be elaborate, while others simplified. On one occasion, I laid a white flower before the framed picture of the deceased, step back and did a 90-degree bow. Then I turned to face the grieving family and repeated the bow. It is usually at this time you’d walk over to offer some words of condolences to the family for their loss.

On another occasion, instead of a white flower, I lit a joss stick and placed it in the urn. Then I had to do a two-and-a-half full bows. This means getting down on both knees, palms facing down on the floor and the forehead touching, or nearly touching the ground. Get up, and repeat. The final half bow is a 90-degree bow standing up. Then I turned to face the grieving family and did one full bow (knees, palm and forehead touching the floor), and one half bow.

After paying your respects and offering your condolences, you’d be ushered to the dining hall where you’d be served simple dishes such as rice cakes, soup, kimchi, peanuts, etc, on disposable plates, and drinks. The tables are usually lined with sheets of thin plastic which helps with the cleanup after one is done.

For a funeral that involves the passing away of a family member of a co-worker, the co-worker’s team (or juniors in the team) are expected to help out at funeral. This typically involves clearing of tables after people have dined, ushering guests to the memorial room or dining hall, and even placing footwear neatly on the floor. Where I come from, this is almost always the role of family members and relatives. That said, while being involved can be rather time-consuming lasting at least half a day (people who are helping usually do a shift rotation during the 2- or 3-day ceremony), the support that one gives to another at this time is immeasurable, and a culture which I hope doesn’t go away with time.

So what do one wear to a funeral? Typically, men will wear a black suit with a white-collared shirt and black tie. (Editor’s note: many men usually have a black tie ready in their desk drawer and a black jacket on a nearby coat rack) Women, on the other hand, put on a black dress, and nothing too fancy, and avoid bright colors as they are seen to be cheery.

From what I understand, funeral rites have transformed over the years and become more simplified to suit the modern Korean society. But the importance of paying respects to those who have departed remains at the core of the Korean culture.

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About the Author

Damian Koh

Singaporean living in Bundang, South Korea, permanently wired to social media and big data by day (and some nights). When not plugged in, he enjoys wakeboarding, snowboarding scuba diving and bumming at the beach. Loves chicken, beer and single malt whisky.