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  • Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in Korea: From Ancient to Contemporary Times ed. by Charlotte Horlyck and Michael J. Pettid
  • Hyang A Lee
Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in Korea: From Ancient to Contemporary Times edited by Charlotte Horlyck and Michael J. Pettid. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014. 265pp.

As Philippe Ariès and Norbert Elias have shown, personal and societal attitudes towards death have gradually changed in the course of history. Although their research dealt only with Western societies, their thesis indeed holds true for all societies, including Korea. Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in Korea is an edited volume of ten essays about how Koreans have historically dealt with death and how mortuary rites have changed. The concept of mortuary rites here covers all aspects of death from the treatment and burial of the body to the burial sites, ceremonies, rituals, and the afterlife. This book effectively presents both change and continuity in Koreans’ attitudes to death in Korean history from the Greater Silla Kingdom to present times.

Compared to Western societies where Christianity, whether in the form of Catholicism or Protestantism, was the dominant religion over a long period of time, East Asia and Korea experienced a comparatively varied religious outlook, which was subject to change as the ruling regime changed. As the editors of this volume also point out, different focal belief systems constructed Koreans’ worldviews and influenced their consciousness and lives over time. They include shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, geomancy and Christianity. These belief systems intermingled over time and contributed to a syncretic religious worldview in premodern Korea. However, Koreans’ consciousness of death and practices dealing with death are not influenced solely by these religious worldviews. The introduction of modern Western medicine and the modern [End Page 331] knowledge system was another great axis to affect aspects of death in modern and contemporary Korea. This edited volume covers all these aspects.

While subtitled “From ancient to contemporary times,” the book does not present a chronological development. Instead, the chapters are grouped under the themes of body (part I), disposal (part II), ancestral worship and rites (part III) and afterlife (part IV). Each part consists of two to three essays covering different historical eras. Part I deals with the treatment of the dead body both in the premodern and the modern period. By examining Buddhist cremation rites in Greater Silla and Koryŏ, Sem Vermeersch tackles our widespread misunderstanding about the Buddhist impact on death in those periods. Using archeological materials and historical records, Vermeersch refutes the notion that cremation was the dominant burial practice in Greater Silla and Koryŏ. According to him, cremation was but one of the different ways in which people treated the dead body. The association between Buddhist identity and cremation was realized only amongst a limited part of the elite after the mid-eleventh century. This chapter forms a suitable introduction to the volume in so far that it shows through diachronic analysis that an important feature of mortuary rites is their resistance to change.

In contrast, the second chapter of this part deals with contemporary changes in mortuary rites. John DiMoia, drawing upon the Minnesota Project conducted by the University of Minnesota and Seoul National University from 1956 to 1962, explores how modern medicine hospitalized the treatment of the dead body in Korea. The “emergence of the hospital as a site for death represented a shift from the past, and in part the funeral hall was designed to ease this transition.” (p. 70) He provides an interesting analysis of the funeral hall as a medium of transition from the past (tradition) to the present in dealing with the dead body. However, his treatment of the historical development of cremation before the 1950s is too sketchy. Also, cremation was not introduced in the 1930s as he writes (p. 70), but in 1912, when the colonial authorities first legislated burial rules.

Part II contains two articles dealing with the disposal of the bodily remains in the Koryŏ dynasty and contemporary Korea. Resonating with Vermeersch’s arguments, Charlotte Horlyck presents a variety of ways to dispose the dead body in the Koryŏ period. This depended on individual circumstances, which is in...


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