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  • Cultural Blending in Korean Death Rites: New Interpretive Approaches
  • Andrew Eungi Kim
Cultural Blending in Korean Death Rites: New Interpretive Approaches, by Chang-Won Park, London: Continuum, 2010, xiii + 227p.

In Cultural Blending in Korean Death Rites, Chang-Won Park analyzes the cultural blending of Confucian and Christian traditions in death rites in Korea, utilizing the concept of the “total social phenomenon” as an overarching interpretive framework of his study. The main idea of the concept is that social phenomena are inter-connected and that each social phenomenon should be understood as a totality. Applied to death rites in Korea, the concept implies that all the features of each death rite are deeply inter-connected with other death rites and make up a whole.

Park begins by noting that death ritual in South Korea entails three distinct rites: two traditionally held rites, funerals and ancestral rituals, as well as one recently emerged ritual of bible-copying. For ritual at death, Park examines two key changes in recent funerary practice in Korea, namely the increasing popularity of cremation and the rise of the hospital funeral hall as the most preferred venue for funerals. For ritual after death, Park discusses ancestral ritual as not only a death ritual but also a cultural practice emphasizing filial piety and family loyalty. He also observes that a third form of death rite has recently emerged among elderly Korean Christians, namely bible-copying, which involves making hand-written copies of the entire bible. These Christians, in preparation for death, invest extensive time and effort into completing the copying of the bible in order to leave behind something meaningful for their children. Combining the insights of theological, historical, sociological and anthropological approaches, the author thus provides historical and contemporary accounts of the three death rites in Korea: ritual before death (bible-copying), ritual at death (funerary rites), and ritual after death (ancestral ritual).

Each of these three death rites is examined from the perspectives of embodiment (cultural meanings attributed to material things or social phenomena), exchange (exchange of gifts, material or symbolic) and material culture. For example, the practice of bible-copying is seen as an embodiment of both Confucian and Christian spiritualities, i.e. Confucian dedication to self-cultivation through learning and Christian piousness toward the Word of God. From the perspective of exchange, the practice of copying the bible represents what is [End Page 221] called an “inalienable gift” or “non-exchangeable” gift. Once the copying of the bible is completed, old people give a hand-copied bible to one of their children. In doing so, they do not want something equivalent in return; rather, they want the bible to be cherished by their descendent(s). The hand-copied bible thereby becomes “an ‘inalienable thing’ which serves as an ‘anchorage in time,’ relating children to both their ancestors and God” (p. 51). Giving of condolence money to the bereaved family is also a manifestation of exchange. The perspective of material culture assumes that the examination of the material aspect of death rites, e.g. mourning garments, a photo of the deceased, ritual food, ancestral tablets, etc. provides insights into not only the rituals themselves but also human minds and social relations.

In discussing these rites, the author focuses on the complex interplay of Confucianism and Christianity, since the latter has established itself as the largest religion in Korea with about 14 million members, representing nearly 30 percent of the total population of 49 million. The interplay between the two religious traditions itself is very interesting, since Korea is considered the most Confucianized society in East Asia. Surveys have consistently shown that Koreans are more Confucianized than their Chinese and Japanese counterparts in subscribing to Confucian values such as filial piety and loyalty and in observing the basic Confucian rituals such as burial rites and ancestor worship. In this staunchly Confucian context, Christianity has succeeded in becoming a dominant religion, a remarkable feat given the fact that it has failed to garner a significant following in the neighbouring countries with similar cultural traditions. In this distinctive religious landscape, a complex interplay of Confucianism and Christianity has continued: although Christianity is the largest religion, Confucianism...


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pp. 221-223
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