Attending a Korean Buddhist Funeral as Family

Last week I attended my first 제서. This week I attended my first Korean funeral, and I did so as family, which means I got a fairly in-depth view of how a Buddhist funeral in Korea works. A funeral in Korea generally lasts three days, and I only saw two, so I still didn’t get a complete experience, but the experience I did get was fascinating.

Sunday (Day One)

Sunday morning we got the call that Grandmother had died. Sister immediately started looking for plane tickets.

Mother immediately took me to the department store. I needed to pick up some glasses and she wanted to pick up a black scarf for me a black slacks for Good Man. Earlier in the week Mother had demanded that we get new coats, so both of us had black coats, but my scarf was red and thus inappropriate. I brought my grey knit dress to Korea and that was fine for mourning clothing, but Good Man didn’t have anything but jeans.

While we were at the department store, Father and Good Man worked on writing up notices and sending the death information out, including the bank account number. In Korea, money is the standard gift for wedding and funerals. Apparently Father took the list of all of the people who gave Mother and Father money for our wedding and emailed them the death notice for his mother, too!

Meanwhile, Mother prepared envelopes of money from her family members. When you attend a Korean funeral, you put money (usually 30K, 50K or 100K won, possibly more in multiple of 100K) in an envelope which has Chinese characters for death on it. (When someone is married you put the same amounts in an envelope with the Chinese characters for marriage on it.)

Good Man told me I didn’t have to pack anything because you wear the same clothing the whole time. OK. We flew to the Jinju (Sacheon) in the evening and went to the funeral home.


The funeral home reminded me of a wedding hall. There was a list of families and rooms being used hanging on the wall. On each list was a name of all of the male descendants in the family. We found our room and on the second floor and headed up there.

Outside of the room was a poster with the male descendants names on it. Grandmother’s name was in red at the top and the sons’ and grandsons’ names were listed in black below her, in order from eldest to youngest. The daughter’s name or her husband’s name might have been on it as well.

Around the door were large flower stands. These stands had ribbons running down either side. They offered condolences and came from groups like “The Sons’ Elementary School’s Alumni Association.”


There was a large room with several low tables set up. Near the entrance was a small kitchen and a shoe rack. Beyond the room I could see a smaller room with an alter set up. We removed our shoes and quickly bowed to the family members we saw before heading to the alter.

There was a photo of Grandmother in the center of the alter and it was surrounded by white chrysanthemums. People were in front of us so we waited until they were done. When they finished, we bowed two and a half times to the alter (two full bows and a shallow head nodding bow). We then turned to Father’s Brothers and greeted them. We turned around and greeted the Eldest Brother’s Wife (Eldest Brother died several years ago).

Someone must have put our money envelopes in the wooden box near the alter, but I didn’t see it.

We went back into the main room and the aunts brought us some food. Bossam, a beef soup, rice, and a bunch of side dishes. We sat down and ate together.

And if I were a guest at the funeral, this would be the extent of my knowledge of Korean funerals. But I’m not a guest, I’m family.

The Alter and Room
(Forgive the poor shot. I was given one chance to get it and I blew it. You can, however, see the hemp armband in this photo.)


The first day of the Korean funeral basically consists of hosting visitors. Visitors would come, greet family members, introduce themselves as needed, bow, and eat. One the first day it was mostly the women and some male cousins who were serving food.

Some visitors, mostly older men, gambled or played card games. Unfortunately, since I was family and not a visitor, I couldn’t even play Solitaire. Since I had just met most of the family members a week earlier, I really had nothing to do. I tried to help the women prepare food, but they kept telling me to rest.

The aunties were all wearing black hanboks over their regular clothing. One of the aunts I don’t like asked if I wanted to wear one. I pointed at the women my age, the female cousins and the wives of the male cousins. “She doesn’t have one, she doesn’t have one, she doesn’t have one… It would be uncomfortable,” I said.

“Ahhh,” said Unliked Aunt, “but it would be an experience.”

OK, I’m going to give this woman the benefit of the doubt and assume she didn’t mean to make it sound like she thought I wanted to make a mockery of Grandmother’s funeral by playing dress up. I looked at Mother, who is unfortunately not the eldest of the aunties, and said “If you want me to, I will, but I will be uncomfortable.”

“No, no,” she said, “You don’t have to.”

Black Hanbok

I did meet some new family members. One of them, a cousin who is Sister’s age, was really neat. She spoke clearly and slowly, and the three of us chatted about men and Korea and what Cousin and Sister are looking for in men. That was nice.

Now, if I were Korean Family, we would’ve had to stay at the funeral home the entire time. Luckily, Mother and Father decided that since I’m Foreigner Family, I’d be more comfortable sleeping at a hotel. They say “comfort,” but I suspect they want us to make babies.

Eldest Cousin drove us to the hotel/motel area of town. On one side of the street was a large (expensive) hotel. On the other side of the street was a cluster of love motels. Since love motels imply sex, Eldest Cousin was obviously uncomfortable asking us where we’d prefer to go.

I said it didn’t matter to me, and we headed into a love motel. Eldest Cousin paid for it. That was strange. But sure, buddy, thanks. We had strict instructions to be back at 8 am for day two of the funeral.

Monday (Day Two)

The second day of the funeral was really interesting to me. Before we got on the plane, Father had asked if I’d ever been to a funeral in Korea. When I said no, he told me to just copy everyone else. Day Two turned out to be a lot of that, but I was so grateful for the 제사 experience, because I had some clue of what was going on.

We arrived around 8 am and had yesterday meal for breakfast. At 8:45 a Buddhist monk showed up. He took a small table, placed it in front of the alter, and went through his ceremony. I was watching from a distance, so I couldn’t see most of us. For a half an hour he chanted and rang a bell to send Grandmother into he afterlife. Meanwhile, the Buddhist daughters-in-law (Mother was not included) were bowing behind him at certain times. Near the end of the ceremony, the sons joined in. Finally, the monk made a big sound with his throat, sort of like a clucking, and that was the end of the ceremony.

It was 9:15. After the monk said a few words, the family went downstairs to view the body. I expected that the body would be fully prepared for burial and we would view it, much like a wake. I was wrong.

Viewing the Body

Grandmother was wrapped in a light yellow hemp cloth. Two men (undertakers?) knotted the cloth around her in seven places. There were hemp strips either side of the body and they’d pull them taut and wrap them around each other until they kinked up and formed a rosette shape. At this point, Grandmother’s face was covered. The men showed us her face. The sons and daughters approached, but I hung back. I had only met Grandmother a week before and it wasn’t important for me to edge out other family members to see her. I felt like it was more important for them to see her.

They covered her face again. Then there was a long process where they tied layer after layer of hemp over her body. At one point, this process included handing the body over to the sons. They stood in a row, arms outstretched, and helped transfer her to a new layer of cloth. I was hurting for Father, for all of them.

The final layer was folded back and forth. She was on a layer (several?) of hemp, and that layer had been pre-cut so that strips were perpendicular to her body. Another hemp cloth was pulled over her body. They started at the head, pulled the hemp down a bit, and folded it back toward her head. Then they use the strips of cloth which were horizontal to her body and tied a knot. They continued the process until her entire body was covered. When it was covered, it looked like she had seven waves of hemp over her whole body.

They cut the hemp, leaving a long piece past her toes. Then they cut a U-shaped chunk out of that, leaving two narrow pieces of cloth on either side. They pulled the final bit of cloth under her body and tied the strips to the strips closest to her feet.

Then they placed her body in a very simple pine coffin, which was lined in paper. They had rolls of paper (sort of like the kind you see in shoes, but larger) that they placed around her body to keep it in place. Then they placed another cloth over her whole body, then a piece a paper with red writing on it went over it, and finally they placed a white piece of paper over her.

The men placed a straw mat on the floor. The sons slipped off their shoes, lined up in order of age and bowed 2 1/2 times. The daughter and daughters-in-law followed. The grandsons were next, and finally, we granddaughters went.

Then men picked up the mat, and said a few words. The sons approached the body one-by-one in order of age, placed money on her, and touched her chest (as best as you could through multiple layers of cloth).

The daughters followed. Except Eldest Brother’s Wife dramatically wailed for a really, really long time (mostly for show, says Good Man) and the two men who prepared the body finally ran her off and asked the rest of the in-laws to do it as a group. They sort of ignored him and approached her mostly one-by-one.

Then the grandsons went and placed there hands on her, and finally we granddaughters did.

The undertakers collected the money and passed it over her body several times. According to Good Man, the undertakers kept the money. It was payment for them.

The undertakers told us to not look back, and we left the room.

Alter Ceremony

We returned to the second floor, where we were all dressed specially. The sons were already wearing (and had been wearing) suits and a hemp armband with two black stripes on it was pinned to their left sleeves. The daughter and daughters-in-law were already in their black hanboks. The in-laws also had a white ribbon in their hair.

But the grandsons and granddaughters were simply wearing dark clothing. The grandsons were given simple white hanbok jackets. The married sons were supposed to wear a pale yellow hemp hat. At that time, Good Man was the only married grandson in the room and his head was too big (!) so he had to skip the hat.

White Hanbok Jacket

The granddaughters were given white hanbok skirts. (Mother complained that the hanbok skirt wasn’t fitting around my waist. First, I’m not Korean, I don’t have a Korean build, and even when I was skinny enough that my hair was falling out in clumps in the shower, my hip bones were the same size. Second, I was wearing a wool dress over a triple-layer petticoat. I told her I didn’t have to participate. That shut her up. I did wear the skirt.)

White Hanbok Skirt

We lined up in rows in Confucian order in front of the alter and did a lot of bowing. Nobody had really told me what we were doing, so I just copied Sister, who was standing next to me.

The next part was similar to what I’d seen done at the 제사. A drink was poured, passed over incense three times, and placed on the alter. Then a rice dish was hit three times with chopsticks. The three signified heaven, earth, and man. Then the person/people bowed 2 1/2 times.

The sons went and did this incense/drink part in order of age, one by one. So did the daughters-in-law (as a group…I think, if I remember correctly).

Then the daughter went. I found this fascinating, since I would think the daughter, being born of Grandmother, would at least get mixed in at the same level as the in-laws. But of course not. The Korean word for a woman to get married is “husband house go to” (시집가다). When a woman marries, she is considered part of the man’s family. So the in-law daughters were considered next in line. The daughter wasn’t. This is also why I was considered a granddaughter. I may not share Good Man’s name or have a drop of Korean blood in me, but I married into his family and am now considered in line.

I was watching closely. I expected the grandsons to go next and then the granddaughters. Since Eldest Cousin and his wife weren’t there, and the other granddaughters and grandsons were unmarried, I was the eldest granddaughter. I was watching really closely because I wanted to know what to do. I thought the grandsons would go as a group, as would we.

But I was surprised, again. Because we’re second generation, the grands- (sons and daughters) all went together and the eldest grandson did the incense part.

Finally the people who were not directly in line (daughter’s husband, Patriarch [Grandfather’s Brother] and his Wife) had an opportunity to do what we’d done.

We stepped back from the alter. It was 10:00.

Dismissed and Counted

After that the main ceremony of the day was over, it was back to visiting, and my boredom set in. There is only so much small talk I can make with people I don’t know and won’t see again for years. However, since I was wearing the white hanbok skirt, it was obvious I was a granddaughter, and that meant fewer people looked at me like they’d thought I’d gotten lost.

While visitors were gambling and playing cards, I was family, so I wasn’t allowed. At one point was so bored, I really wanted to serve people food. Unliked Aunt said, “Oh, it looks like Amanda wants to serve!”

I said, “I do. I’m bored.”

Not 15 seconds later she handed the tray of food to her son.

So apparently she wants me to play dress up to have an “experience,” but I can’t serve food? Twit. I can manage to take food off of a platter and stick it on a table and say “please eat deliciously.”

I went and sat against the wall and played games on Sister’s Blackberry. Several of the sons were playing games on their phones, so I didn’t feel too guilty. I ignored everyone unless Mother or Father specifically introduced me. I didn’t care how busy it got. I wasn’t going to serve food.

And Unliked Aunt? She sent Good Man over there to keep me company because I was bored.

“If she would let me serve food, I wouldn’t be bored,” I said. ” But oooooh nooooo, the foreigner can’t figure out how to put food on a table!”

“None of us like her,” he said.

I ended up hiding out in the tiny room next to the alter and when Good Man and I went in there, two men (Grandfather’s Brother’s children) were counting out the funeral envelopes.

We were sitting for a while and I was playing with the Blackberry. Then one of the men stammered in English that I should number each envelope and count the cash and label the envelope. Then I stacked up the cash in front of me based on their denomination.

That man and Good Man counted out stacks of one million won (about $1,000) while the other brother took the empty envelopes and copied the envelope number, person’s name, amount, and any messages or notes they’d written on the envelope.

We got through 75 envelopes. Some of the envelopes were from the funeral hall. Some were pre-printed with the Chinese characters. Some were regular envelopes (sometimes imprinted with the giver’s home or work address) with the characters hand-written or stamped on them.

It was actually fairly interesting work, and I was glad they asked me to help. It made me feel useful, instead of just being the random white attraction in the room.

I do find it rather telling that a woman didn’t think I could do a woman’s job, but the men trusted me with counting money.


Good Man and I flew out Monday night (parents’ choice), so I didn’t see the third day of the funeral, when the body was buried. I am told that the mound was built up to the appropriate height. Mourning will continue for 47 days, but the visiting is basically over after three days. The sons who live near the burial site will visit frequently to pay respect and keep the site clean.

As awful as it is to say, I’m glad Grandmother died when I was here. When Grandfather died, Father was working abroad, so he couldn’t attend the funeral. Grandmother has been in the hospital since September, so it wasn’t a surprise that she passed away. While I know Father was hurting, I think he really appreciated being able to attend her funeral. Father flies out on Friday. If Grandmother had held on for just a week longer, he would’ve missed her funeral.

Mother is happy that Grandmother lived until she could see my face.

I feel honored to have attended the funeral as a family member, even though I was often bored (hey, so were the other cousins). Although we only attended two days of the funeral, those two days taught me more about Confucianism than any of my past (mostly incidental) reading. Again, like 제사, this is another experience I wouldn’t’ve had without being married to Good Man.