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[Opinion] Hosting Ancestral Worship Ceremonies

Posted November. 22, 2008 09:32,   


In Korea, ancestral worship ceremonies are a cause of dispute among siblings or relatives. Though the eldest son usually hosts the ceremony, other siblings or relatives give opinions on how to hold it and prepare the table used in the ceremony. Disputes over the ceremony have even split families. The right to host ancestral worship ceremonies is a right and yoke at the same time. As always, most Korean women do not want to marry a man who is the eldest son. The eldest grandson of a family cannot boast his status in the family. Certainly, he is considered the worst husband possible since he is required to worship both his parents and ancestors.

The Supreme Court has stepped in to resolve a case in which half brothers fought for the right to host the worship ceremony for their father. All nine justices gathered for an intense discussion. The ruling said, “The consensus of successors should be considered first. When they cannot reach an agreement, the eldest son, whether he is a legitimate or illegitimate child, will be given the right. When the eldest son dies, the right goes to the eldest grandson from the eldest son. If there is no son, the eldest daughter will receive the right.” In the suit, the eldest son born to his father’s legal wife won, but six out of the court’s 13 justices were against the ruling.

The Supreme Court has traditionally ruled that as long as there are no conditions to be considered, the eldest grandson of the main family has the right to host ancestral worship ceremonies. This ruling is different from those in the past. The court even held an open discussion to listen to legal experts. Others, however, said this ruling fails to reflect changes in Korean society. Nevertheless, it applies the principles of gender equality and legitimate and illegitimate children even to ancestral worship ceremonies. Land, family record and ritual utensils under law belong to the person who hosts the ancestral worship ceremonies but who should host the ceremony is not specifically mentioned. The half brothers took their case to court because of this.

Supreme Court justices said this ruling is no different from past rulings, with some even proposing a measure to pick the host via a majority decision among successors. This is akin to introducing democracy to the ceremony. If such principles are applied to ancestral worship ceremonies, countless eldest sons and their wives will fervently support the change. Needless to say, democratic principles have positive factors but can also damage family lines and traditions and public morals that have traditionally bonded families in Korea.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)