The Sanchon Hunjang
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The Sanchon Hunjang’s Guide to Korean Funerals

The Sanchon Hunjang has been to several Korean funerals before, but never paid any attention—just watched and copied what the guy next to me did. Well, I decide to take this as an opportunity to pay a bit more attention to what goes into the funerary rite, as observed 4 full days of funeral at two different locations this week. Fortunately all of the other people at the funerals were more than patient with my never-ending questions. So here goes a summary of Korean funeral etiquette as observed by yours truly.

There is some variation. Especially at Christian funerals, but the common funeral seems to follow basically the same script. Here is what one should expect when visiting a funeral for the family of a friend or colleague to pay respects:

  1. Arrival: Make sure you drive to the right hospital, because 삼성의료원, 중대병원, etc. have several locations. After arriving at the funerary department of the right hospital, you have to find the right room.

  2. Make a Donation: When you get to the room, there will be a small desk with someone sitting behind it and a large box with the word 賻儀函 or 부의함 written on it, located just inside the doorway. It is expected that everyone going to the funeral should make a donation (부의금: “condolence money”). Donations usually get larger the closer you are to the bereaved. 3o,ooo원 is a common amount for most circumstances. If the bereaved includes a close friend, then 5o,ooo원 or up would be appropriate. The money always must go in an envelope. They sell envelopes with 賻儀 already printed on them for this occasion at stationery shops. Or you can just write “부의” on any common white envelope (in 한자 if you want to look smarter than you really are ^^). They also have empty envelopes available at the sign-in desk right next to the donation collections box at funerals. It is not considered proper etiquette to let the person at the desk see how much money you put in the envelope so, if you didn’t come prepared, turn your back to him or step out of the room while you perform the money-stuffing operation. Be sure to write your name on the back of the envelope, because the family likes to keep track of who has come and who has made which donations. That way they can reciprocate in degree.

    The Sanchon Hunjang originally thought that this money-giving custom was the strangest aspect of Korean funerals. It seemed like saying, “You’re wife died? What a shame. Here's 50 bucks, why don’t go to Vegas and forget about her.” But now I think I get it. It's like a different manifestation of shared labor that helps make communal projects possible. A funeral generates not insignificant costs. And everyone will have to put on a few funerals in life, so when there is a funeral, everyone pitches in so the expenses are less of a burden. It goes around and around, so in the end, nobody in a given circle of acquaintances comes out ahead or behind. It is just a means of matching the cash outflow from a funeral with some cash inflow. It’s like those 계, where there is not an overwhelming economic rationale for many of the participants, but it changes the timing of the cashflow streams of the participants to meet specific needs, without burdening anyone excessively

  3. Sign in: There will be a book, called either “부의록” or “조위록,” sitting on the desk next to the donations box, with a pen. After you have dropped your envelope into the box, you sign your name in the book. Sometimes the person sitting at the desk behind the book will take your donation envelope and sign your name for you in the book.

    ☞ Sometimes people do the donation and sign-in steps after they are done with the bows and on their way out of the room. This is also acceptable.

  4. Enter: The room is made like a Korean house, with a shoe-changing station by the door when you come in, and then a slightly elevated floor that is the main space. You take your shoes off, just as if you were entering a house. If you are carrying any bags or umbrellas, you should set them down by the shoe pit. If someone else is in the room doing their bows, wait until they finish and come back to put their shoes on before you enter.

    At some funerals, they will have a large vase filled with chrysanthemums that is sitting by the shoe pit. If they have these flowers, you should take one on your way into the room. If not, just go straight in, to the front of the picture of the deceased.

  5. Preparations: If you have picked up a chrysanthemum, place it in front of the photo where the other chrysanthemums are piled, or where they have cleared off space to place them. The stem should face you.

    ☞ Click for the labelled version

    The next step is to burn some incense. In front of the picture of the deceased there will be food offerings, and in front of that there will be a table or stand with a burning candle, an incense urn and some incense sticks. Some people perform this while kneeling in front of the incense stand and others do it while standing—it doesn’t seem to matter. If you are in a group, only one person needs to do the incense offering, on behalf of the whole group, and then everyone will bow together. The person who is giving the incense offering grabs one or two sticks of incense, lights them in the flame of the candle and sticks them in the brazier.

    A few people offered a fresh glass of alcohol to the deceased at this point, but the overwhelming majority just skipped this step. Those who did reached up and took down the cup that was sitting in front of the photo of the deceased, among the food offerings. They poured out the alcohol that was in the cup into the bowl in front of the incense table. Then they refilled the cup from the pot of alcohol sitting next to the bowl for discarding the used alcohol. They picked up the glass of fresh alcohol with two hands, circled it 3 times in the air above the incense and then placed the cup back where it had been originally, in front of the photograph.

    After placing the incense, or offering the alcohol if you choose to, take a few steps back, so you will have room to execute the bows.

  6. Bow to the Deceased: Facing the picture of the deceased, do one full bow (큰 절), ending in a crouched position, facing the floor. Hold the crouched position for a moment. Get back up on your feet and repeat. If it looks like this, then you're doing it right:
    IMG: 남자 큰 절

    Then get up and do a bow from the waist. 2 and 1/2 times. That’s the magic recipe for the dead. If you are in a group, the whole group does the bows together.
    ☞ Many Christians seem to see this step as worshipping false gods, so they don’t do the full bows and just offer a short, silent prayer instead

  7. Bow to the Bereaved: After bowing to the deceased, turn to face the relatives and do the same full-bow drill one time, followed by a bow from the waist. Depending on the specific family tradition, they will either have burlap armbands over a black suit, burlap leggings from the knee down with a burlap hat (looking not unlike a brown lunch bag on the head) or maybe the full burlap outfit from head-to-toe and a cane that is too short, to boot. Ladies will wear a white 한복, or more recently a black one, and they have a little burlap or white ribbon bow in their hair. But be aware that funerals are about sons. When a woman dies, even her husband is sidelined and the sons (and grandsons) take over the funeral show. At any rate, the family in the room will do the bow sequence at the same time as you do. Some people say that female visitors should omit the full bow during this step and just offer a bow from the waist. However, I observed that the family will just go along with whatever the visitor does. It is getting more and more rare, but sometimes you see a family with the 아이고 chorus going, where the bereaved will continually chant a tearful “아이고 아이고 아이고” interspersed with occasional wails like “우리 어머니 돌아가셨어!” These tend to be the traditionalists who have also gone for the full burlap suit.

  8. Offer Condolences: After the bows, the family will usually offer a handshake. Sometimes they will crouch, so it looks like they are going for another full bow, but don’t be confused (although, if you were to be confused, you wouldn’t be alone. I saw several Korean visitors take the fake on this one.) This is the right time to express your condolences over their loss. A good sentence for this occasion would be:
    상삼이 크시겠습니다

    The family will thank you for coming and, depending on how talkative they are, they may give some details about the passing of the departed.

  9. Let’s Eat: You walk back over to the shoe-pit, put your shoes on and walk out of the room. They will be having food served somewhere in the funeral hall and will usually guide you to the site, or maybe just point you in the right direction. Depending on the size of the crowd, some members of the bereaved family may come by to chat while you eat. The menu seems to be the same at pretty much all funerals: 밥, 육개장, 편육, 홍어무침, a few kinds of 김치, , fruit, soft drinks, beer and 소주. You can eat at your own pace and, when you are done, stand up and go. If the family comes over to visit with you, common topics for conversation are:

    • Where the burial site (장지) is and whether they are going to cremate (화장) the remains

    • When the deceased will be washed and placed in the coffin (입관), and when the family will be departing for the burial site (발인)

    • How many sons/daughters/brothers/sisters/husbands/wives are left behind (I hear that the last two are especially appropriate at Mormon funerals. ^^)

    • How the deceased met his or her end (Given my observations, here it seems appropriate to ask if it came as a surprise to the family, or if they were given time to prepare, as well as share anecdotes of people you know who have passed away in a similar manner)

      ☞ The Koreans at both funerals were un-squeamish about discussing such details and seemed to find this more appropriate than my attempts to bring up “shop talk” related to work or other topics

    It used to be considered good manners to stay up all night long with the bereaved for two nights from the date of passing, in order to show support and prevent them from being overwhelmed by sorrow. These all night sessions included heavy drinking and many rounds of poker and 화투/고스톱 (네이버 백과사전). I understand that this is still the custom in areas outside of Seoul, but today’s Seoul Cinderellas prefer to let the family of the bereaved get some sleep, so they all mysteriously vanish at about midnight. Also, many don’t feel that the boisterous atmosphere of a poker game goes with a funeral, so these are becoming fewer and fewer.

Hopefully this rather longish post is enough to allay pre-funeral anxiety and maybe even stave off a faux pas or two. If you are interested in more traditional funeral practices, I would recommend 임권택’s movie 《축제 Festival》 starring that Mr. 안 and his 성기.

Surely a candidate for the most useful blog post on Korea award.

I hope I don't have need to refer to it too soon.
A post worthy of anthropologist/ritologist Victor Turner!

This is odd, because in my experience at a family member's funeral, there was only one half-bow after the two full bows. I sat there and watched a lot of people, but nobody every did 2.5 bows from the waist after the full 2 bows.
Hmmmm. It appears that I was less than clear in my expression. In my head, the math went like this: one full bow + a second full bow + a bow from the waist (a 'half bow') = 2.5 full bows.
Thank you for this. Very informative.
Goodness! Thats alot of info!
Was there any children at any of the funeral. Are there rules regarding children attending funerals?
Thank you so much for this information. A close Korean friend of mine passed away this weekend and I'm going to the funeral tonight. This post has been especially helpful and makes me feel much more relaxed about the whole thing, as I'm a foreigner going on my own. Again. Thank you. Thank you so much.
I found this titbit of information on korean funeral rites:
I'm recently found myself interested by this topic, and I was wondering if there was still something like "kok" during korean funeral rites (you didn't mention it in your article), or if that has become something outdated, and how "kok" would look like?
Thank you so much for the details. This article has been particularly very helpful and makes me experience much more relaxed about the whole Korean funeral program.
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