One of the great duties in Korean culture is the proper burial of beloved family members. In the olden days, it was believed that the deceased could only make a smooth transition into the afterlife and avoid becoming a wandering ghost, or kaekkwi, if they were correctly sent off via a proper Korean funeral.
In Korea, what used to be a very long and elaborate funeral ceremony has become much more simplified to accommodate modern busy lifestyles. But there are still many traditions that are uniquely Korean and symbolic of deeply held beliefs.
Funerals outside of Korea frequently follow the customs of the adopted country but it’s always good to know the old ways and traditions.
The sangju (상주) or the funeral host and chief mourner, is the closest relative of the deceased, traditionally the first son or grandson. As an expression of filial piety, he is in charge of the pre-burial, funeral rites and memorial. In turn, as a guest, you will want seek him out to offer your condolences.
Koreans tend to go out of their way to attend the funerals of not just their immediate family but also those of their friends’ family as well. In Korea, to accommodate guests traveling from afar, funerals are often a three-day, around-the-clock series of events.
Many of the pre-funeral traditions are handled by dedicated professionals these days. But the sangju is still a central part of the funeral. Mourning begins as soon as a family member dies, then continues for three days. Afterwards the body is taken to a burial site or cremation facility. Modern hospital funeral homes have dining rooms and bedrooms for families to stay and mourn.
Usually, $50-$100 is sufficient, with close friends and family members often contributing more. This tradition is still widely practiced by the first generation of Koreans living abroad. As a practical matter, this much appreciated gesture goes a long way toward easing the burdens of the many costs involved in a funeral.
Traditionally, Koreans like to prepare an amount that starts with an odd number, for example, $50, $100, or $300, because odd numbers represent good fortune. However, any amount you feel moved to contribute will be appreciated. In Korea there are special envelopes for jo-uigeum, but abroad most people use a condolence card in which they enclose the check or cash.
When you enter the church or funeral hall you will see a table with a guestbook in which you should sign your name and mailing address. If there is a person sitting at the table, you can offer your envelope to that person. If no one is there, look for a condolence money box. If you don’t see either of these options, just give your envelope to a family member at an opportune time.
For relatives or close friends, it is customary to send jo-uigeum even if you are not able to attend a funeral in person.
As a guest mourner, you can feel comfortable wearing black or dark formal clothing to a Korean funeral.
You will see family members wearing black or white. Usually, the chief mourner and his close male relatives wear a black suit with a black armband. The chief mourner will have two black bands on his arm. Women might wear a white hanbok if they want to adhere to tradition, and may also wear a white ribbon in their hair. This is the reason many Korean women will not wear white hair ribbons as everyday accessories.
In the past, hemp clothes — or sangbok — were worn by the immediate family. Sons and grandsons were fully adorned in hemp including a hat and straw shoes.
In the funeral hall, an altar is set up with a portrait of the deceased. This altar is called a jesasang (재사상). Traditional Korean funerals include food offerings and flowers at the altar of the deceased. Nearby there will usually be large standing arrangements sent as gifts from close family and colleagues. Mourners in attendance at the service may also put funeral flowers at the deceased’s altar.
A portrait is present at every Korean funeral. It’s common for Koreans to choose their own portrait before death. In fact, some photography studios in Korea specialize in only taking funeral photos. The portrait is the centerpiece for the altar.
Food offerings honor the deceased and their loved ones. The food is a tribute to the deceased’s spirit helping them along in their journey to the afterlife. Korean funerals will include plenty of food for guests in a dedicated dining hall. Abroad, many Korean funerals will be followed by a meal at a nearby restaurant.
Traditionally, pallbearers sang a loud and mournful community chant while carrying a large stand for the coffin but these songs are rarely heard at a modern funeral.
Pallbearer ceremonies are sometimes still performed in villages. But as interest in the old customs wanes, the government is playing a key part in trying to preserve the past by funding traditional ceremonial music and performers.
Etiquette at a funeral in Korea
- Sign your name in the guest book and remove your hat and coat. Look around and you will probably notice that shoes are to be removed as well. When you enter, you should bow slightly (just lower your neck) to the host.
- Approach the altar and light the incense; then fan or shake out the flame on the incense stick. Blowing out the flame is considered rude and bad manners. Place the incense into the bowl and bow twice. When you bow, for men: your right hand goes on top of the other and for women: your left hand goes on top of the other.Christians tend to skip the incense and place a flower on the altar instead, then bow their heads in silence for a few moments when in front of the funeral portrait. Immediate family members might hand you a flower or incense and show you what to do. Follow their lead.
- Move away from the incense and bow once to the host. Generally you do not speak to the host but you might say something like ‘상심이 크겠어요’ (sangshimi keugaesseumnida), meaning: your grief must be great.
- When you leave, walk backwards about 2 or 3 steps before turning and walking away.
- If you have not yet given your monetary gift, this is the time to do so. Make sure the gift is in an envelope and hand it to the host’s family at the desk where you signed your name. You will be invited to partake in a meal at a nearby dining hall.
Korean Burials and Mourning the Dead
Koreans traditionally chose natural burials in the countryside. An auspicious burial site with plenty of sun and a pleasant view were considered very important.
These days, cremation has overtaken natural burials as the dominant form of permanent rest. Korea is a small country running out of both space and time. Family members often lack the resources to return to the gravesite with regularity. And according to the Ministry of Korea, the cremation rate was almost 85 percent of all funerals in 2019. The lack of physical land available for burials has contributed to rising cremation rates. In Korean law, families that opt for natural burials have to dig up the remains after 60 years to save land space.
Instead, many Koreans choose to keep the ashes in an urn at a burial site, or spread the ashes at a place beloved by the deceased. Another modern option are cremation beads kept in a family member’s home. These are put in special containers in the home and honored by family.