[OUTLOOK]Time to change how we honor deadOver the weekend, I went to visit my ancestors’ graveyards. Just to get out of the city made me feel relaxed and happy.
I drove a cultivator and passed by grapevines, feeling like the hero of a popular TV series that ended recently. In fact, the TV series was shot near the mountain where my ancestors’ tombs are located.
I was happy to see cockscombs and salvias again after a long time. There were countless wild flowers all over the place. I was fully refreshed and recharged.
But the job wasn’t easy. I carried two tools to cut weeds from the tombs, plus five rakes and one saw to cut weeds from 17 tombs. The gravesites were not even next to one another. They were scattered on many different hills, probably because descendants wanted to have better places to bury their ancestors.
That was understandable, but still it was a lot of hard work. I return there every year but I get lost every time. I have to cut down tall weeds and arrowroots to make my way. While moving from one tomb to the next, I thought there was something wrong with that.
That was not only because it was hard and exhausting. I felt it was not right that our beautiful mountains are full of tombs. On the train going to my hometown, when I looked out the window, I found the mountains full of tombs of all sizes. We should do something about this, don’t you think?
Actually I feel envious of the western culture of cemetries. Although there were times when bodies were interred in the basements of churches, cemeteries are not repugnant places to Westerners. Cemeteries are instead places to rest and remember those who have passed away.
In the Pere Lachaise cemetery or the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, fans visit the tombs of popular singers and great writers and have fun all day long.
In the Kensal Green Cemetery, in London, 85 different kinds of birds are said to live. In the Rose Hills Memorial Park, in Los Angeles, 7,000 rose bushes of some 600 varieties grow. Cemeteries serve as places to learn about nature.
I wish we had this culture but it would be hard to change an old custom and culture overnight.
Our culture on tombs was mainly influenced by feng shui. Feng shui comes from the expression, “To block wind and to gain water.”
This came from China but thrived in Korea. The philosophy of feng shui was coupled with Confucianism, in which people are to respect their ancestors. This resulted in the vanity of building larger tombs at better spots and the destruction of nature.
Compared to our custom, China’s culture on tombs is more nature-friendly. It has been so even before Mao Zedong ordered cremation.
In the Chinese epic classic, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” Cao Cao made his own tomb when alive and said, “From a long time ago, people have buried their dead in barren land. Do not build a mound over my grave and do not plant trees on it.” Shrubs grow on the graves of Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang or Kongming. These have been the traditional type of tombs in China. By letting shrubs grow over tombs, a person’s remains return to nature.
There is nothing wrong in trying to bury one’s ancestors in good places. The problem is that we have such a small national territory.
The average size of a living space for Koreans is 14 square meters, while the average space of a tomb is 50 square meters.
Every year, the equivalent of a cemetery the size of Yeouido is created and the economic damage from this amounts to 4 trillion won ($4.2 billion).
If this trend persists, experts say that the supply of graveyards in the metropolitan Seoul area will reach its limit within three years and that the entire country will be filled within 10 years.
Fortunately, people’s thoughts and perceptions have been changing lately. My parents now think of cremation for themselves.
While cutting weeds on the tombs, my family discussed our thoughts on this issue and cremation or burial without making a funeral mound sounded like a good idea to me. In this way, the remains of many generations will take up the same space as one tomb.
It will soon be Chuseok and Korean families will get together over this holiday. I hope Koreans talk about this with their families during the Chuseok family reunion. Please remember that our dead take up three times as much space as our living do.
* The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.
by Lee Hoon-beom