Unsettling thoughts during a modern Korean wake

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Unsettling thoughts during a modern Korean wake

In modern society, we take too many things for granted, without questioning them. For example, does anyone know where, or how, the practice of paying respects to the dead in hospitals began?
It’s an unusual idea, if you really think about it. But in the past five to 10 years, it’s become so popular that almost all the hospitals in Seoul nowadays have funeral halls, where families and friends come to mourn the dead before the mortuary service.
An artist named Young-Hae Chang raised concerns about this trend in a work of online art called “Samsung.” The idea came to her after she attended a visitation at Samsung Hospital.
Chang, who has spent many years abroad, said she found the idea of holding a wake in a hospital to be very strange. As she explained during her last exhibition at Rodin Gallery, it seemed contradictory to her that one should pay one’s respects to the dead at an institution dedicated to saving lives.
Chang’s piece uses Samsung as a metaphor for divine power, a power that rescues people from nihilism and boredom in a capitalist state. Her work suggests that Samsung, whose name we are so accustomed to seeing on billboards and on various products, is finally beginning to control human lives from birth to death.
As I was slurping beef soup last week at a hospital funeral hall, where a visitation for my friend’s mother was held, the thought came to me that there had been some remarkable truths in what the artist had been getting at.
Nothing was wrong with the visitation. But perhaps that was the point. This wasn’t like services I remember from when I was a child. People were so calm.
Food was served on time as new guests arrived. The kitchen was completely under control. When guests left, a pair of ladies would come and clear away the dishes, replenishing the table with the same food: a few side dishes, a bowl of steamed rice, beef soup and bottles of soda and beer.
I remember how my grandmother used to cry every single time she visited my grandfather’s grave. Fifteen years after his death, she still sobbed violently whenever our family went to the cemetery. I didn’t know what made her so sad, but she seemed very relieved, almost carefree, once she was done crying. She went back to eating and doing her own thing as soon as it was over. For a child, that was one curious sight.
At the hospital funeral hall, it came to me with a mix of awe and bitterness that what we call civilization may have begun to dictate how we deal with some of our deepest emotions.
We don’t complain about it, of course; in fact, many of us have gladly accepted the exchange, with its convenience and cleanliness. Some people might prefer a visitation without unpleasant scenes. Maybe we even see things more clearly when we’re not being emotional, though I think something’s been lost.

How to Cook

Yukgaejang (spicy beef soup)

Ingredients:100g of bracken, 100g of fried bean curd, 100g of Chinese cabbage, 500g of beef brisket, 12 cups of water, 1/2 onion, 3 garlic cloves, 1 green onion. For sauce: 1 teaspoon of soybean paste, 1 teaspoon of crushed garlic, 1 teaspoon of diced green onion, pinches of salt and pepper, 1 teaspoon of sesame oil.
1. To make the broth, put the beef brisket, onion, green onion and garlic into a pot of water and boil for two or three hours. Remove the beef, cut it into bite-sized pieces and mix it with the salt and pepper. Save the broth.
2. Boil the bracken in a pot of water and remove it once the stems have softened. Boil the cabbage; take it out when the leaves have softened, wash it in cold water and cut it into thin strips.
3. Put the fried bean curd in a pot of boiling water. After a few stirs, take it out and cut it into bite-size pieces.
4. Put the bracken, bean curd and cabbage in a bowl, add the soybean paste, diced green onion, crushed garlic, sesame seeds and sesame oil and mix well.
7. Heat the sesame oil in a clean pot, add the bracken and cabbage mixture and stir for a few minutes. Add the meat and broth. Season with chili paste and salt as needed. From miz.naver.com, Delicook

by Park Soo-mee
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