Time to face our ancestors

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Time to face our ancestors

Winchester Cathedral is located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of London. Some of the historic buildings were built in the 7th century, and the scenes at the Vatican in the movie “The Da Vinci Code” were filmed there.

Just like most of the cathedrals in Europe, Winchester Cathedral also has a cemetery. One of the people buried there is Jane Austen. But the gravestone on the ground does not say that she was a writer. It only says: “The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind.” At the time Jane Austen died in 1817, all of her works had been published anonymously because of gender prejudice.

But there was another gravestone that made me think more. It simply stated, “Here lies Joan Ripley, buried on May 6, 1677.”

It is obviously the grave of a woman, but the epitaph did not explain anything about her life. People have walked by this gravestone for 340 years, and many may have wondered what she was like and what kind of life she led.

In Western philosophy, death is considered the end of life. But it also feels like the living and the dead coexist in the West. It is not just because of the statues found scattered around the cities. Town centers often have a war memorial, with the names of the dead inscribed. Cemeteries are found near churches. You have to walk among the dead to seek the wisdom of eternity. You often find plaques on park benches dedicated in memory of loved ones. What were those people’s lives like? We are constantly reminded of the past.

Oliver Cromwell, one of the most controversial figures in the United Kingdom, is a good example. There is a panel that reads, “The Burial Place of Oliver Cromwell” in Westminster Abbey. Interestingly, he was only buried there for about two years. It was the designated burial place for the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England.

But the royalists did not approve of it because he was the only leader in English history to execute a king. Upon his death, the monarchy was restored and his body was exhumed and posthumously executed. His mutilated body parts were buried separately.

But Oliver Cromwell was an outstanding figure in British history, and a plaque was put up to mark his burial 200 years later. A statue of Oliver Cromwell stands outside the House of Parliament as he was a symbolic member of Parliament. We don’t have to refer to history books to understand his significance, which cannot be judged as good or evil by his contemporaries.

It is hard to have this kind of experience in Korea, where the living and the dead are strictly separated. It may be the influence of secularism; as philosopher Tak Seok-san wrote in his book “What Koreans Live By,” “Death means the end, so let’s hurry up.”

The Lunar New Year holiday, the time to face our ancestors, is coming soon. How about we look further into the past than just our immediate ancestors?

*The author is the London correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 10, Page 34

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