“I can’t stand it when people say that the dead know nothing.” Shim No-sung, a writer of the late Joseon Dynasty, wrote at the end of his essay titled “Planting trees next to the grave.” It seems people said as such when they saw Shim planting trees around the grave of his wife, who had died at the age of 31. Even his younger brother No-am thought that he was too obsessed with sorrow. Yet, No-sung did not care a bit. To him, a death did not mean an extinction.
In fact, revealing one’s sorrow through writing was a taboo in the Joseon period. Overly mourning a wife’s death would have drawn ridicule. Still, Shim was ahead of his time. He did not hesitate to write down the sense of loss and pain he felt after his wife’s death. He choked up with tears even when he looked at a side dish made of mugwort, and expressed the feeling by writing a poem. “A woman who used to gather mugwort for me, now mugwort is growing in soil above your face.”
Shim lamented his wife’s death in nearly 50 poems and proses. Among them, a writing about tears reveals his thoughts on death.
He thought that tears would only come out when the person whom you mourn responds to your feeling. That’s why sometimes you could wail tearlessly or shed tears without crying. According to him, a tear welled up in eyes was what decided one’s sincerity in holding memorial services of ancestors. He insisted on this thought throughout his lifetime. When he would hear the sounds of traditional Korean instruments, find a heap of papers on a desk, get drunk, and play go or janggi, he often broke down in tears and that’s because his wife’s spirit responded to his feeling. Then his tears were not only his but also other people’s. This idea may sound too emotional, but Shim firmly believed that one’s deep sorrow ultimately reaches the dead’s spirit and brings out tears.