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Death, Mourning and the Afterlife in Korea

Death, Mourning and the Afterlife in Korea: Ancient to Contemporary Times

Charlotte Horlyck
Michael J. Pettid
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Death, Mourning and the Afterlife in Korea
    Book Description:

    Death and the activities and beliefs surrounding it can teach us much about the ideals and cultures of the living. While biologically death is an end to physical life, this break is not quite so apparent in its mental and spiritual aspects. Indeed, the influence of the dead over the living is sometimes much greater than before death. This volume takes a multidisciplinary approach in an effort to provide a fuller understanding of both historic and contemporary practices linked with death in Korea. Contributors from Korea and the West incorporate the approaches of archaeology, history, literature, religion, and anthropology in addressing a number of topics organized around issues of the body, disposal of remains, ancestor worship and rites, and the afterlife. The first two chapters explore the ways in which bodies of the dying and the dead were dealt with from the Greater Silla Kingdom (668–935) to the mid-twentieth century. Grave construction and goods, cemeteries, and memorial monuments in the Koryŏ (918–1392) and the twentieth century are then discussed, followed by a consideration of ancestral rites and worship, which have formed an inseparable part of Korean mortuary customs since premodern times. Chapters address the need to appease the dead both in shamanic and Confucians contexts. The final section of the book examines the treatment of the dead and how the state of death has been perceived. Ghost stories provide important insight into how death was interpreted by common people in the Koryŏ and Chosŏn (1392–1910) while nonconformist narratives of death such as the seventeenth-century romantic novel Kuunmong point to a clear conflict between Buddhist thought and practice and official Neo-Confucian doctrine. Keeping with unendorsed views on death, the final chapter explores how death and the afterlife were understood by early Korean Catholics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in Korea fills a significant gap in studies on Korean society and culture as well as on East Asian mortuary practices. By approaching its topic from a variety of disciplines and extending its historical reach to cover both premodern and modern Korea, it is an important resource for scholars and students in a variety of fields.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-4015-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Note on Names, Terms, and Titles
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Chronology
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. 1 Considerations on Death in the Korean Context
    (pp. 1-18)
    Michael J. Pettid and Charlotte Horlyck

    You can know the next world only after you die.¹

    In the prime of his life, Prince Myongwon [1491–1563] became ill and died. After three days he awoke and told this story: At first my body was in great pain, but gradually that subsided and I was calm. Through a crack in the window I was able to go outside. There was a wide and endless desolate plain, but suddenly upon arriving at one spot I could hear the sound of ap’iri[flute] and a drum being struck. As I approached, a shaman bade me to come forward,...

  7. Part I The Body

    • 2 Death and Burial in Medieval Korea: The Buddhist Legacy
      (pp. 21-56)
      Sem Vermeersch

      Material evidence of funerary rituals is one of our main windows into the past. Especially in societies without a written culture, burials form one of the most important archaeological witnesses to past society. For medieval Korea,¹ there is only a very modest corpus of useful textual material for Koryo, and even less for Greater Silla. Conversely, there is more archaeological evidence for Silla than for Koryo. Given this paucity of source material, it is simply impossible to write the kind of intimate portrayal of how medieval people faced death that is possible for France or Japan.² How Silla or Koryo...

    • 3 Making Death “Modern”: Reevaluating the Patient’s Body, Transforming Medical Practice, and Reforming Public Health at Seoul National University Hospital, 1957–1977
      (pp. 57-80)
      John P. DiMoia

      In 1956, the arrival of a team of medical consultants from the University of Minnesota (UMN) marked a major transition at Seoul National University Hospital (SNUH), which was then in the midst of a comprehensive overhaul of its physical infrastructure (1954–1957), along with related changes to its pedagogical practice.¹ Among the concerns raised almost immediately were practices governing the routine care of patients, with Korean families permitted to reside on-site temporarily with their ailing family members—providing for basic necessities, including food and laundry—allowing hospital staff members to concentrate their limited resources on meeting the needs of health...

  8. Part II Disposal

    • 4 Ways of Burial in Koryǒ Times
      (pp. 83-111)
      Charlotte Horlyck

      When King T’aejo (r. 918–943), the first ruler of Koryo, died, his remains were interred in a small chamber built for the purpose in the mountains west of Kaesong, the capital of the new kingdom. Made of stone slabs and covered with a small earth mound, the interior of the tomb bore murals depicting the Four Guardian Animals (四神sasin) alongside paintings of pine, plum, and bamboo—the so-called Three Friends of Winter symbolizing longevity and perseverance. Its exterior was encircled by stone slabs with carvings of the twelve zodiac animals, while stone sculptures of officials and tigers were...

    • 5 Death as a Nationalist Text: Reading the National Cemetery of South Korea
      (pp. 112-134)
      Guy Podoler

      “Insofar as the knowledge of death cannot be avoided in any society,” writes sociologist and theologian Peter L. Berger, “legitimations of the reality of the social worldin the face of death[emphasis in original] are decisive requirements in any society.”¹ Accordingly, this chapter explores the way that the notion of death is linked to what has become central to the reality of sociopolitical orders worldwide: nationalism.

      Nationalism is understood here as “an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining identity, unity, and autonomy of a social group some of whose members deem it to constitute an actual or potential nation,”²...

  9. Part III Ancestral Worship and Rites

    • 6 Shamanic Rites for the Dead in Chosŏn Korea
      (pp. 137-154)
      Michael J. Pettid

      Trying to identify precisely which practices in Korean funerary rites might be labeled as shamanic is not an easy task because of the syncretic nature of religious practices and customs in premodern Korea. We find significant overlap and mixing of what might be termed shamanic practices with those of Buddhism, geomancy, and, by the late Choson, even Confucianism. While this might pose a difficulty for the present-day researcher, for Koreans of premodern times it had no such effect since it was simply how people lived. Nonetheless, at some level the amalgam of practices can be separated somewhat and we can...

    • 7 The Familiar Dead: The Creation of an Intimate Afterlife in Early Chosǒn Korea
      (pp. 155-168)
      Milan Hejtmanek

      Shivering in the freshly fallen snow on a mountainside near Seoul in the early spring of 1536, gloomily contemplating the viscous, decomposing remains of his father’s corpse as he and his kinsmen performed an elaborate reburial, Yi Mun-gǒn (李文楗 1494–1567) con fided to his diary his sense of squeamishness as he redressed the body and placed it in a new coffin: “I could scarcely bear to move my hand forward, but what choice did I have?”¹

      That day proved an exhausting climax to months of tedious preparation, involving the careful supervision of the selection of wood for the coffin...

  10. Part IV Afterlife

    • 8 Ghostly Encounters: Perceptions of Death and the Afterlife in Koryǒ and Early Chosǒn
      (pp. 171-189)
      Michael J. Pettid

      Undoubtedly death is one of the few universals of all human societies, and because of the finality of this event, it has been an occasion that is most commonly approached with feelings of dread and the unknowable. Given the significance of death to humans, an understanding of how societies conceive of death, the afterlife, and what might occur to the dead can reveal much about how a given society understands its place in the cosmos. Particularly interesting are those beliefs concerning the condition of persons after death, specifically, the nature and function of ghosts (kwisin鬼神).

      There are numerous accounts...

    • 9 Buddhism and Death in Kim Man-jung’s A Nine Cloud Dream: From Fact to Fiction, and Nowhere Back Again
      (pp. 190-212)
      Gregory N. Evon

      According to the Sǒp’o yǒnbo (西浦年譜 Biographical chronology of Sǒp’o, i.e., Kim Man-jung 金萬重, 1637–1692), in the late spring of 1692, Kim learned that several of his friends had recently died. He and they had been exiled at the same time, and he was then growing sicker day by day, coughing up blood, when he sent his cousin what was, in effect, a farewell letter.¹ In it, he sketched his illness (incurable, he accurately guessed) and explained that after he had learned of the deaths of his friends, life seemed to be a dream. But he contrasted this vague...

    • 10 Dying for Heaven: Persecution, Martyrdom, and Family in the Early Korean Catholic Church
      (pp. 213-236)
      Franklin Rausch

      “[Trying to suppress Catholicism] is like hitting ashes with a club. The more you strike, the more they rise up. Though the King wants to put a stop to it, in the end, there is nothing that can be done.”¹ These words, spoken by Yi Ka-hwan (1742–1801), a former Catholic whose household contained numerous believers in the new religion, would prove to be true.² Despite numerous government persecutions in which Catholics were tortured and killed, this religious community continued to rebuild itself with the help of Chinese and French missionaries. While it is not clear to what Yi attributed...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-256)
  12. List of Contributors
    (pp. 257-258)
  13. Index
    (pp. 259-267)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 268-269)