Holiday week coming to an end

October 6, 2006

Woah… what a week. Only one day of work at the office… then, a trip to our cousin’s grave, a jaunt with the kids to Everland, a trip to uncle’s grave, Chuseok ritual for other aunt and uncle, and then a Chuseok visit to “little Grandpa’s” house (i.e. paternal grandpa’s little brother). Whew. (As with all pictures you see here, if you want to see/learn more, I urge you to click on the pix to go to flickr where you can roll your mouse over the pix to see notes, or to see my explanatory comments and such).

For foreigners, Chuseok is a great opportunity to learn about Korea, and what it means to be Korean. If you’ve married into a Korean family, you have an opportunity to literally take your place in the family, performing your ritual responsibilities, bowing to the dead, cleaning the gravesite, partaking of the feast, bringing gifts, playing with the kids… My family here is all Catholic and this offers an especially unique glimpse into Korean religion, as Catholics have fused traditional practices with Catholic rituals, to create a uniquely Korean form of religious practice.

According to a 2005 survey, Catholics represent only 10% of the population, with Protestants 18%, Buddhists 22%, and the “non-religious” 47%. However, such statistics are misleading, in that they are aimed at specific religious cultures, where religious identities are sharp and clear. Korean religious culture is precisely the opposite. For instance, from the above statistics, one would suppose that “Confucianists” comprise some tiny percentage of the remainder. Yet, the predominance of Confucian thinking outstrips any of the religions listed above. The problem is, of course, “what is religion?” If it means, “what is the identity you claim for yourself in regards to your participation in theological social organizations?” then… you get statistics like the one’s above. But if it means, “what are the girding principles that govern your thoughts about the nature of reality, morality, and the structuring of society?” then “Confucianism” would have a huge number, or maybe a “Shaminist/Confucianist/Buddhist/Chrisitian” fusion of some sort.

That huge percentage of “non-religious” in Korea is misleading precisely because it implies that such folks are all secular materialists, with no ritual life that provides any kind of “transcendent” practices linking themselves to the larger community, of this world or the next. This is simply false. In fact, this misnomer can be seen in the answer many of the “non-religious” give when asked what their religion is… “I don’t need religion. I am Korean, that’s enough.” What does this mean? It means that Korean culture in and of itself already has within it prescriptions for morality, for social organization, and for dealing with the great questions of life and death. In short, the relationship with nature of reality, of life and death,is governed not by clear cut identities based on separate religions, but rather a combination of many. Among the most important guiding institutions in this relationship is the practice of ancestor memorial ritual, often mislabeled “ancestor worship,” a term that is loaded with a Christian missionary bias, lumping the practice in with other forms of “idolatry.”


Ancestor memorials – “going to the mountain grave” – these are the anchors of the Korean religious year. Everyone gathers together, makes food, places it in front of the grave, offers bows and greetings to the departed, and then sits around eating the ancestors’ leftovers ;). The bowing isn’t worship, it’s simply respect, the traditional means for the younger to show love and honor to the older, the deepest sign of humility and gratitude. It’s done it to all relatives and loved ones, living or dead.

While most Koreans follow this way of thinking, not all do… or have. In fact, the question of memorial rites was one of the key factors causing resistance to the introduction of Christianity to Korea, specifically against Catholics in the early 19th century. Korea’s history of Christianity is in fact rather unique, in that it was Koreans, not missionaries, who brought the religion to Korea after travellers to Beijing came into contact with the works of Jesuits who had been in Beijing for sometime. The appeal of Catholicism was multi-faceted. For the Korean elities in Beijing, much of it had to do not with theology, but the with scientific skill the monks displayed in a variety of fields. Such skills were seen to be the key for national development, countering the stagnant Confucianism of the late Joseon dynasty. But on a poplular level, the idea of a “equal and universal brother/sisterhood as children of God” was indeed inviting to a society marked by a near caste-like system of extreme social stratification.


This challenge to social stratification was in and of itself threating to a monarcy. But more dangerous was the metaphysical threat posed by a church that forebade (at that time, at least) its members from taking part in ancestor memorials. The failure to follow such rituals was seen by Confucianists as the sure welcoming of catasrophe, as the divine order was not being upheld. Many decades and executions later (many executions indeed… the martyr’s cemetery at “Beheading Mountain” near my apartment marks the spot where some many thousands were taken out in one fell swoop), the Catholics realized that a little bit of sophisticated reinterpretation could take care of these problems and eventually, the rituals were sacralized into a Catholic format (the likes of which I myself took part in this week. No matter what my present religious (or, some may say, irreligious) predelictions, never let it be said that I won’t heartily join in most any tradition to offer some healthy respect for the ancestors. I’m most ecumenical on that account.). Protestants, however, are a different story. They came later, at a time when there was a dying dynasty, less resistance to their non-traditional non-ancestor ritual ways. To this day, while many Protestants have gone the Catholic route and re-interpreted the ritual in their own “prayer service for the dead” way, the majority of those who refrain from any ancestor rituals whatsoever are indeed Protestants.

Okay, enough religious history. More on the culture… So, my visits this week were primarily celebratory. Saying “hi” saying “thanks” checking in to let them know we still care, we miss them, and if they could… perhaps offer any assitance from where they are at… well, all the better. We looked to the full moon last night and gave some wishes there too. It is this full moon that marks the holiday in fact, the full moon of the 8th lunar month each year. I was lucky enough to plan my run such that i ended up on the top of little Seongmi-san just as the moon rose over Nam-san. What a sight… I had goosebumps and felt as happy as ever to be among the breathing.

But not all visits are simply happy visits to say “hi.” For those who left too early, or quite recently, there is indeed a lot of sadness and grief involved. These are sites of mourning, after all, and while that mourning is eventually transforms by time into a a calm and happy remembrance, this isn’t always possible, and certainly not when the grave is newly planted. So, for our cousin who died this June, the visit was really hard for me personally. First and foremost because the pain of the wife and daughters he left behind is still so acute. Secondly, because I simply couldn’t believe the relative to whom I had grown most warmly attached to was no longer joking and hugging me, pushing me forward to make sure I was bowing before others in the proper place of order at the ancestor memorial… now I was alone and bowing to him as he rested for eternity, overlooking the lovely mountains nestled around the Imjin River. His handsome face covered, his hearty and constant laughter silenced by the soil. I didn’t take any pictures there. Next time, maybe.

Luckily, the next day we went to an amusement park. I had the great pleasure of joining with the various nieces and nephews. Being an uncle suits me better than being a dad, i think. It was great especially to be with the daughters who lost their dad. I already loved their spunk before, and now it is just all that much easier to shower them with affection and attention. I love that warm feeling I get when they yell, “IMOBU!!! Ride with us on this one IMOBU!!!” (imobu is the title for the husband of your mother’s sister or cousin) or when they collapse into my lap when they want to take a rest. Of course, it makes me miss the younguns back home a lot too… but isn’t that always the case with me here? Everytime I have a lot of fun, it can’t help but remind me of who’s missing… Such is the fate of vagabondage I suppose.



  1. man, it’s absolutely killer to see that picture of hyoung at grandma and grandpa’s grave from our honeymoon. I don’t know how you managed to bow to his own. ūüė¶

    so glad the cousins are treating you right…. oh, and my mom heard from the grapevine about your trip to pusan, so you’d better behave yourself!

  2. Matty,

    If “ancestor worship,” is seen as a form of idolatry, Maybe all christians are also guilty, since they worship Christ and he’s everyone’s “brother.”


    P. S. It often seems that all teams have their own rules in their individual playbooks.

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