Another Method of Saying Goodbye

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Another Method of Saying Goodbye

Cremation or burial? For most people in the West, the decision is largely a private one. But in Confucian Korea, where the dead cast a long shadow across the living, the issue can be explosive.

Driving along the expressways and back roads in Korea, one is often struck by the number of graves situated precariously on the country's numerous mountainsides. Looking like a well-manicured garden, with a prominent mound that marks the burial site, graves in Korea are what connect the living with their deceased ancestors. Pious sons visit the graves regularly, pulling out weeds, clearing the site and carefully inspecting the tombs for any maintenance work that may be necessary. The hope is that their ancestors, comfortably ensconced in their eternal resting place, will keep vigilant watch over their descendants, blessing them and keeping them out of harm's way.

Chuseok is a day of thanksgiving that includes paying respects at the ancestral grave. And with the Oct. 1 holiday fast-approaching, areas that are heavily dotted with private graves and public cemeteries, such as Seongnam and Yongin in Kyonggi province, are congested with people who want to tend to the graves before the crush of people on the Chuseok day itself.

"This has turned into a real chore that I wish I could escape," said a 63-year-old man who wanted to remain anonymous. Although he is originally from Pusan, his parents are buried in separate cemeteries near Seoul in Seongnam and Paju, both in Kyonggi province. He said that he is seriously considering cremation for his parents as well as himself and his wife. "I don't think my sons or grandchildren will continue this tradition when we pass on and I don't want to burden them with having to pay respects at four different graves," he said.

In fact, such thinking seems to be the growing norm. A Korea Gallup survey of 1,488 adults nationwide conducted in April showed that 62.2 percent favored cremation, as opposed to 37.8 percent who responded that they preferred burial. That is a near reverse from 1994, when 64.9 percent said that they preferred burial and 32.8 percent preferred cremation.

Yet the stigma traditionally attached to cremation makes it difficult for families to actually accept it. Many people consider cremation appropriate only for the poor, people who met with violent deaths or those without family to take care of the grave.

Lee Bu-jong, head of the Yongjanggong sect of the Jeonju Lee family, and his extended family clashed over this issue. "It caused quite an uproar among the elders in the clan," he said. "They could not imagine cremation for the royal descendants." This particular branch of the Jeonju Lee family traces its roots to the fifth son of King Sejong of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910). For the conservative family, steeped in Confucian tradition, cremation was unthinkable. Burying the ancestors in auspicious sites ensures good fortunes for the descendants and, even in death, one's social position is recognized by the grandness of the grave.

It took nearly 10 years of persuasion to finally get the nod from the clan elders to proceed with cremation. "Every year, the issue would be presented during the general meeting of clan elders only to be rejected," said Mr. Lee. In June, when the ancestral burial mountain in Seongnam became full, some 130 graves were dug up and the remains cremated and removed to a newly built, 990-square-meter private memorial park in Yeoncheon-gun, Kyonggi Province. "We should be able to accommodate all of the existing graves and have enough room for the next 300 years," Mr. Lee said. Compared to the traditional grave, he explained, which required more than 33-square meters each, burial of each urn requires only 0.66 square meters. In Korea, it appears one's living condition improves upon death. Recent statistics show that the average grave site measures 49.5 square meters per person, nearly 3.5 times the average living space per person according to the Korean federation for environmental movement. Although legislation introduced this year limits the size of a private grave to 32.67 square meters, approximately eight square kilometers of land, an area slightly larger than the size of Yeouido, an island in the middle of the Han River in Seoul, is turned into graves every year. At the moment, the total area of all the grave sites throughout the country is about twice the size of Seoul.

Whether people like it or not, simple logistics now require people to seriously consider cremation, particularly for Seoul residents. Public cemeteries in Seoul are full, leaving just a few, difficult options - cremation, bury the deceased in mountains often far off in the countryside or find spots in cemeteries close to Seoul, spots that are becoming increasingly hard to find.

Economics also favors cremation. Buying a plot for a grave and erecting a tombstone cost 7 million won ($5,400) or more, and a typical funeral can cost 2.5 million won more. It costs merely 15,000 won to lease a spot for 15 years at one of the memorial parks or a niche in the columbaria operated by the Seoul Metropolitan Installation Management Corp.

Despite the apparent advantages of cremation, however, ages-old practices change slowly. Mr. Kim, a 60-year-old man whose family does not have an ancestral mountain burial site, is one person sticking with the old ways. "After my mother passed away suddenly last year," he said, "I was frantically searching for a burial spot and did not get to properly grieve her death. I had only two days to find a grave site. Of course, I would like to have been able to choose an auspicious site but I had to take whatever was available and had to pay for it on the spot." Someone in the family suggested the possibility of cremation, but the rest of the family refused to even consider it. "How can we cremate her when she has sons to take care of her? That would be abandoning one's filial duty, and we would lose face," said Mr. Kim.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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