[FOUNTAIN]Lessons on the cause of death

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[FOUNTAIN]Lessons on the cause of death

In the late Joseon period, a daughter-in-law in a respectable aristocrat family in Mun-gyeong, Gyeongsang province, was found dead, hanged from a girder. The husband claimed that she committed suicide out of shame after a commoner attempted to rape her. But coroners found signs of murder on her body. The husband had beat his wife to death, suspecting her of having an affair with a commoner. The husband had tried to conceal his crime and fabricated her suicide.
Murder investigation records kept at Gyujanggak, or the royal library, reveal how advanced the postmortem system had been in the Joseon period. When a case was reported to the authority, a district official from the jurisdiction would visit the crime scene, witness an autopsy if needed and write up the first draft. Then an official from a neighboring district would be asked to write a secondary report. If the two officials drew different conclusions, the case would be reported to the superior office, which would send a coroner to reinvestigate the case. The system is similar to that of the United States, where forensic scientists begin further examination when a coroner raises suspicion.
Investigations would follow a guideline called “Jeungsumuwonrokeunhae,” which listed 22 ways to find the cause of death by observing the body. The aforementioned case was solved using a method from the book. In case of suicide by hanging the dust on the girder would be disturbed. But if someone were to try to make a death by other means look like a suicide by hanging, the rope or other instrument of strangulation would leave a neat imprint.
Recently, forensic scientists said at a conference that the current postmortem system does not even match the level of the Joseon Dynasty, and specialists in the field are in short supply. Calls for change have gone unheeded, and the status quo has the risk of producing false results.
The Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Death announced plans to establish Sewoncheong, an agency specializing in investigating causes of death. The name comes from a Song Dynasty forensic instruction book called Xi Yuan Lu, or Sewonrok, meaning “clearing false charges.” Hopefully, Sewoncheong would reveal the causes of suspicious deaths and recover the reputation of the dead. I hope the government will consider establishing this agency to clear the frustrated minds of the living?


by Lee Kyu-youn

The writer is a deputy social affairs news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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