During Korea’s Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), women of decent families would spend most of their adult lives in the service of others ― entertaining guests and overseeing ancestral rituals called ``jesa.” These two vocations were a housewife’s most visible roles, on top of cooking and caring for one’s husband and children.
Even in modern Korea, these expectations stubbornly persist. This is especially true for us wives of first-born sons. To be honest, I’ve always felt some resentment for spending so many hours in late December and early January preparing for the New Year ancestral rituals. After all, the end of one year and the beginning of the next is a special time. Nevertheless, family tradition holds and I’ve long tempered my personal misgivings.
While the specific rituals depend on family tradition, most Koreans observe the same Confucian fundamentals. I think my reluctance is grounded in the fact that I don’t believe the old lore that on special holidays the spirits of our deceased ancestors descend to Earth to taste real food and wine.
Let’s face it, there’s something peculiar about leaving a room and observing a moment of silence so the deceased can eat in peace. Oh, and don’t forget to leave the house gate ajar so the spirits can enter! Taken literally, it’s almost funny to imagine the Korean Peninsula on the New Year and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) holidays, where the starving spirits from other cultures may crowd the skies to find some food.
Despite my heavy dose of skepticism, I’ve always played my role as a respectful daughter-in-law. After all, traditions aren’t meant to be explained or to be agreed upon. As I’ve been told, subsequent generations should simply follow what’s been handed down. Of course, this is made more difficult in an era of boundless information and interconnectivity. Today, the entire globe is watching and learning from each other thanks to the Internet.
``The cultures that you think are the most stiff and buttoned-up, like Japan, China and Korea, are the cultures that openly sob,” said Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, the author of ``Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death.” In her book, Cullen describes a scene at her Japanese grandfather’s funeral. As they prepare to close the casket, all of her extended relatives surround it and begin to wail.
Reading her account, I was reminded of a similar scene during the recent funeral of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il. Watching those people cry, shout and wail so wildly, I wondered about their emotional or rational reasons for doing so.
When my grandmother passed away in a village in the 1970s, I witnessed what was probably the last generation to observe the full traditional funeral rites of a prominent local family. Over several days, as guests arrived from distances near and far, every aspect of the elaborate ceremony was meticulously overseen by professionals ― white mourning garment makers, wailers, caterers, receptionists, ritual conductors and, of course, the coroners.
I still recall the sad melody of the dirge sung by the master of the pallbearers who led the bier from the village up a hill to the burial site. Hundreds of family members in white, friends and guests followed him. Along the way, the procession stopped at several points to conduct brief roadway rituals, where a table of food was offered to commemorate places of significance for the deceased.
As a young child, I was overwhelmed by the sad and grave spectacle. I was also shocked when my uncle, as master of ceremonies, coolly ordered everyone at one very emotional moment to cease crying. Who was this dispassionate outsider? Was the entire ceremony just a show?
Although elaborate funerary ceremonies of this scale are seldom practiced anymore in Korea, many conservative families faithfully observe ancestral rituals on important holidays and dates marking the deaths of family members. Indeed, many Koreans consider such activities to be their most important and meaningful duty as human beings.
That said times are certainly changing. I remember reading a funny news story about families who pay their respects at a ski resort condominium. This way, they could enjoy the New Year holiday while fulfilling their family duty. Conveniently, all of the traditional ceremonial foods were readily available at the resort supermarket. Stories like this make me wonder if in the future, observing ancient rites will be completely turned over to for-hire ritualists.
Given all this, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when my son, at age nine, declared that he will not prepare food for his dead ancestors after his father and I die. He offered no explanation, and we dared not criticize him for it. After all, he was merely saying aloud what we have long felt.
Indeed, I suspect that our jesa family protocol will change even in my lifetime. Once my 96-year-old mother-in-law no longer oversees the ceremonies, I plan to make some changes. While the tradition will survive, I hope it does so in a more reasonable form. Once ultimate responsibility for this tradition falls fully to me, I’ll use the occasions as opportunities for valuable off-line family gatherings in this age of relentless online communication.
After all, in addition to honoring our ancestors, bringing one’s living family members together is also part of jesa.
The writer is the chairwoman of the Korea Heritage Education Institute (K*Heritage). Her email address is email@example.com.