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[Opinion] Funerals and Society

Posted June. 05, 2006 03:16,   


Since ancient times, gojongmyeong, or living as destined and dying peacefully, has been considered as one of the five blessings. One of the conditions of gojongmyeong is passing away in one’s bedroom with his or her children watching, and one can see how our ancestors considered dying outside their home as an immense misfortune. However, in the present, the majority of people die in hospitals. It is also common, if someone dies in their home, to move the deceased to the hospital and hold the funeral there. That might be due to the practical nature of tailored funerals.

There is nothing more sorrowful than the death of a close person. Confucius once said, “When one dies, the funeral should be held courteously. The principle of funerary courtesy is not form, but a sorrowful heart.” In other words, he teaches that cherishing the memories of the deceased is the proper funerary courtesy. Nevertheless, this is only true inside a book. The adage that when the dog of the prime minister dies, the house is full of mourners, but when the prime minister dies no one comes, is more realistic. The satirical Korean adage emphasizing human relations and its beneficial values is still valid.

There is a joke that attending a funeral serves five proposes at once. One can naturally stay out overnight, a place and people to play cards is automatically provided, and one does not have to worry about drinks and food. But it doesn’t stop there. Afterwards, one hears a compliment from the deceased person’s family members, “Thank you for staying overnight at the mortuary.” It seems there is no better place to make an impression than a funeral. That is why the funerals related to powerful people are always full of superficial visitors.

Seoul Shinchon Severance Hospital lacks five elements that are present in all other funeral houses. Those are alcohol, tobacco, card games, overnight stays and food. That is because it adhered to a “Five No Visit” policy since 1996 in order to promote Christian funerary customs. However, it is reported that this hospital will return to the loud and busy traditional Korean funeral style. The reason is simple. The number of visitors has significantly decreased due to the strong regulations. It appears that funeral houses are not exempt from market principles, but it still leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Song Dae-keun, Editorial Writer, dksong@donga.com