Groundskeeper says his job is destiny, but a royal pain
Hong Mun-ok, a modern royal grave-keeper, agrees that it’s a nuisance, although there’s no longer a visiting king to keep him busy. He was awarded the job by his father, who got it from his father ― and so on ― down over the generations. If it weren’t for that familial pride, Mr. Hong said, he probably wouldn’t tolerate the occasional slurs he incurs for doing the work. Mr. Hong, you see, doesn’t take care of just any royal tomb: He is the guardian of the resting place of Yeonsangun, a king during the Joseon Dynasty who was viewed by his subjects about as positively as Nero was viewed by Romans.
“It’s true,” said Mr. Hong, 58, standing before the grave in Banghak-dong, northern Seoul. “For six generations, my family has been dedicated to caring for the grave and its shrine.”
As he spoke, he shoveled up loose dirt that the previous day’s rains had melted across the ground. He smoothed the dirt into a staircase that led to the grave’s entrance. It would probably rain again soon and the dirt would probably be washed away again, but he merely grunted and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “[If so,] I’ll just have to start over again. This is my job, to keep the graves clean and tidy,” he said.
His tactless form of stoicism seems to be a result of, and a facilitator of, his thankless job of caring for the tomb of a tyrant. Unlike the other 26 remaining tombs of Joseon kings, which are open to tourists, the site had until recently been off-limits to visitors. An employee of the Cultural Heritage Administration said this was done to protect the historical site, which was not equipped with tourist facilities such as restrooms, parking lots or waste baskets; other mausoleums are.
Because the king was overthrown, Yeonsangun did not receive a temple name or a typically grand royal burial mound, another reason the grave site is not a tourist destination.
Surrounded by a thickly wooded forest, the site consists of five modest mounds, including that of Yeonsangun and his wife Shin on the upper hill, the king’s concubine, known as Cho, in the middle and his daughter and his son-in-law on the lower side.
The only entrance to the site had been through the shrine that Mr. Hong’s family has lived in for the past century.
Last month, however, the government agreed to open the site to the public and created a gated entrance for visitors. It was simply a response to growing demand: The unpopular king is now popular, thanks to the hit movie “The Royal Jester” (formerly known as “The King and the Clown”) in which he is depicted.
Putting down the shovel, Mr. Hong greeted a couple who had brought their children to the grave. He smiled when one of the children exclaimed, “Is that the tomb of the king we saw in the movie?”
“If my father were alive, he would have run over to the child and told her to be quiet, because this was a sanctuary,” Mr. Hong said, picking up the shovel again. “But I’m just not as stern.”
Although he is employed by the Cultural Heritage Administration, as all royal grave-keepers are, the man says he believes it was his “destiny” to watch over Yeonsangun’s grave.
“I grew up watching my father and my grandfather wiping the dirt off the tombstones and plucking weeds out of the ground everyday,” he said. “When it was the day of ancestral worship for Confucianists, my father would dress up in traditional robes and greet the heads of visiting clans.”
During the Joseon Dynasty, his family head was awarded a government post as a royal mausoleum keeper. Even during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), the family still kept the post and was paid three large sacks of rice a month from the Japanese government to take care of the tombs. After liberation and following the Korean War, most of the grave-keepers were either dead or had quit. The government eventually started taking official care of historical sites, but it was not until 1991 that the gravesite of Yeonsangun was designated for protection and its keeper was employed again. They hired Mr. Hong, who was still living in the shrine, and awarded him the post.
Had he known it was visited by five decades of neglect, he never would have agreed to become the royal mausoleum keeper in the first place.
Mr. Hong said it was his father who carefully recarved the etchings on the gravestones, which had worn thin (which explained why Yeonsangun’s gravestone still had clear letters while others have faded). When kids in the town knocked over one tombstone, leaving a deep crack on the rock that fell on it, his father propped up the stone with a few rocks (and chased the punk down to teach him a lesson).
In those years, the family was so poor that Mr. Hong had barely enough to eat. He said he spent his childhood playing in the forest around the tombs. But he said most of the children were scared to go near the tombs. When dogs barked loudly at night, the children in town would shriek, saying the ghost of the tyrannical Yeonsangun had returned. But to Mr. Hong, the grave was a friendly site. He once thought his family had owned the site because, after all, it was his backyard, and his ancestors had taken care of it.
Carefully unfolding a scarf, Mr. Hong took out a small round wooden tablet. It was an old palace access card issued at the end of the Joseon Dynasty to prove that his father had been an official royal mausoleum keeper.
“My father was very proud of this and used to carry this with him all the time,” Mr. Hong said. “But he never showed it to me, saying I was too young to look at it closely.”
It was only after his death that Mr. Hong found the wooden tablet hidden inside his father’s dresser drawer. “I never showed this to anyone but my wife and my brother,” he said. “But I think I should show this to more people to let them know that my father was a devoted man.”
Mr. Hong plans to retire next summer, which means the current administration will have to hire someone else.
Asked how he would feel seeing that another person was taking care of the site, he was silent for a while.
“That’s how it should be,” he finally said. “But I think I’ll be coming here for walks, since it’s open to the public.”
by Lee Min-a