Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The universal language of goodbye

It felt really good the other day to talk about my Gram and sort through everything I was feeling. I don't think I need to do that again but at the same time what's happening at home today is particularly on my mind. So rather than ignore it or indulge it, I'd like to talk about a recent experience that relates but at the same time lets me keep a safe distance from upsetting myself again.

Let me tell you about a Korean funeral.

A couple weeks ago our assistant manager, Kevin, lost his father-in-law to stomach cancer. Kevin is the nicest guy and bends over backwards to make our lives easier. So when he texted all of us the night of his father-in-law's wake and asked us if we wouldn't mind coming to console his family, there was no question about paying our respects. Kevin doesn't ask for anything and it was the least we could do.

We took multiple taxis and headed to a nearby hospital. In Korea, the funeral homes are connected to the hospital which I suppose on some level makes sense. Downstairs there are several rooms so that funerals can be held simultaneously. There were these huge flower stands lining the corridors and a big TV on the wall that listed the rooms and the names of the deceased and family members so you could determine where you should be. We spent a few minutes trying to figure out which room to go to since none of us could remember Kevin's Korean name. Finally we just picked one that seemed right and figured a group of thirteen foreigners would draw enough attention for someone to redirect us if we were wrong.

Luckily we picked the right room which apparently, as we were told later, was the biggest there. There were more flower stands and a small lounge area with a couple couches in the area immediately inside the door. Then to the left there was a sort of lobby area that had a reception desk with a guestbook and a slotted box for donations. This is customary for Korean funerals and after my initial surprise it didn't seem so strange. Funerals can be tough financially and I think it's just a way of supporting the family in a stressful time. We each donated ₩20,000 and then put the combined total in an envelope which they provide for you there. Then we took off our shoes and waited in line to pay our respects. I was especially glad that my pants were long enough that day to mostly cover my bright orange and pink socks. We were told going barefoot would be disrespectful and I was relieved I hadn't just been wearing flats.

The whole thing was more of a wake than a funeral but different from an American wake. For one, the body wasn't there. Since the country is so small, they don't really have the land for lots of burials and this makes burials more expensive. So most people are cremated. You still go up and say a prayer and pay your respects but it was at a sort of altar rather than a casket. This was in a room right off the lobby. On one side of the room was the altar with a big half circle of flowers arranged on top and a picture of the deceased framed in the middle. To the sides were more flower stands and in front was a big soft mat on the floor for bowing. There is a particular floor bow routine you're supposed to follow and we were all trying to peek around the doorway at the Koreans in front of us to see how to do it but opted for short bows from the waist instead.

Inside the room we each picked up a flower and placed it on the altar when we were in front of it. There was also incense and I think soju below the altar. Then to the right of the altar was the receiving line. Kevin stood next to the altar in a black suit with these sand colored armbands on his right arm that made him look like a pilot. Beside him were a few more men dressed the same and then three women after them, including his wife, who were dressed in these sort of black dresses that seemed to be made out of the same material as graduation gowns. I shook Kevin's hand and said I was sorry and politely bowed to everyone.

Back in the lobby we headed into a big room to the right where there were long tables and cushions lining the floor. All the tables had white plastic tablecloths on them and when we sat down they brought out a bunch of food and drinks- soup, meat, a variety of typical Korean side dishes, etc. Korean funerals last for a couple days and people apparently will come all through the night to pay their respects (by the time we left it was near midnight). So it wasn't surprising that they also brought out lots of beer and soju so that people could stay up with the family. I can't begin to imagine how exhausting a forty-eight hour wake would be.

Kevin came over a couple times to talk with us and brought his wife at one point to introduce her around. She was so sweet and grateful to us for coming, I'm not sure how she held it together so well but she did. I think some people are just much better in these situations than others. When we were leaving later she thanked us again and I gave them both hugs. Her dad was young, only in his mid-fifties, and she and Kevin have two little kids. Situations like those just suck no matter which way you slice it. I think we all felt good about being there for Kevin though, since he does so much for us.

When I came home later I googled "Korean funeral etiquette" and actually came across another blogger's run down on what to do and how to behave should you ever need to attend a funeral while in Korea. It pretty much covers exactly what my experience was but is much more comprehensive when it comes to explanations and includes some pictures so you get a better idea. I recommend it if you find yourself in similar circumstances. You can read it here.

So even though a Korean funeral was different in some ways from an American one, the feeling was still the same. A send off attended by friends and family seems like a pretty good way to go, no matter what language they're saying goodbye in.

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