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Death, Mourning and the Afterlife in Korea

Ancient to Contemporary Times

edited by Charlotte Horlyck and Michael J. Pettid

Publication Year: 2014

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.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Perhaps as with all anthologies, the path to publication for this volume has been a winding road of progress with a few flat spots mixed in to make things interesting. The concept for the collection arose from a panel organized by Charlotte Horlyck for the Association for Asian Studies in 2008. It has been a great pleasure for the editors to have had the privilege of working with our contributors through this process, and...

Note on Names, Terms, and Titles

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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Chapter 1 Considerations on Death in the Korean Context

Michael J. Pettid and Charlotte Horlyck

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pp. 1-18

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

In the prime of his life, Prince Myŏngwŏn [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...

Part I The Body

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Chapter 2 Death and Burial in Medieval Korea: The Buddhist Legacy

Sem Vermeersch

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pp. 21-56

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 Koryŏ, and even less for Greater Silla. Conversely, there is more archaeological...

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Chapter 3 Making Death “Modern”: Reevaluating the Patient’s Body, Transforming Medical Practice, and Reforming Public Health at Seoul National University Hospital, 1957–1977

John P. DiMoia

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pp. 57-80

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,...

Part II Disposal

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Chapter 4 Ways of Burial in Koryŏ Times

Charlotte Horlyck

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pp. 83-111

When King T’aejo (r. 918–943), the first ruler of Koryŏ, died, his remains were interred in a small chamber built for the purpose in the mountains west of Kaesŏng, 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...

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Chapter 5 Death as a Nationalist Text: Reading the National Cemetery of South Korea

Guy Podoler

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pp. 112-134

“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 world in 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....

Part III Ancestral Worship and Rites

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Chapter 6 Shamanic Rites for the Dead in Chosŏn Korea

Michael J. Pettid

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pp. 137-154

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 Chosŏn, even Confucianism. While this might pose a difficulty for the present-day...

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Chapter 7 The Familiar Dead: The Creation of an Intimate Afterlife in Early Chosŏn Korea

Milan Hejtmanek

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pp. 155-168

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-gŏn (李文楗 1494–1567) confided 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...

Part IV Afterlife

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Chapter 8 Ghostly Encounters: Perceptions of Death and the Afterlife in Koryŏ and Early Chosŏn

Michael J. Pettid

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pp. 171-189

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 ...

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Chapter 9 Buddhism and Death in Kim Man-jung’s A Nine Cloud Dream: From Fact to Fiction, and Nowhere Back Again

Gregory N. Evon

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pp. 190-212

According to the Sŏp’o yŏnbo (西浦年譜 Biographical chronology of Sŏp’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,...

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Chapter 10 Dying for Heaven: Persecution, Martyrdom, and Family in the Early Korean Catholic Church

Franklin Rausch

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pp. 213-236

“[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...


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pp. 237-256

List of Contributors

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pp. 257-258


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pp. 259-267

Production Notes, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780824840150
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824839680

Publication Year: 2014