A Feast of Spirits

Phillip Kim
May 1st, 2014

The dead receive two bows, whereas the living receive only one. And each bow is not the familiar bend-forward-stiffly-at-the-waist variety, but rather, a full and solemn forehead-to-the-ground kowtow-style keun jul to be held for a reverential few moments before the mourner rises to stand. It is a time-honored Confucian custom deeply ingrained in any Korean who visits the gravesites of deceased relatives and ancestors. The tradition has become diluted in recent decades by the swelling chorus of Christians who regard such prostrations as shamanistic worshipping of spirits, and therefore of false idols. Nevertheless, the practice endures as a uniquely Korean way of expressing piety.

Luckily, today is a clear and warm spring day, perfect weather for an outdoor memorial ceremony deep within the gently worn mountains north of Andong. The trees boast fresh lime-green leaves and golden forsythia and purple grandmother-flowers splash across the wooded slopes. Just as importantly for our group of relatives, and especially for the elderly or those carrying boxes of food, drink and bamboo mats, the ground is dry. Climbing the steep dirt path to the family grave plot wearing dress shoes will be easier, and we’re thankful that bowing in front of the burial mounds will not be a mud-drenched business.

The path takes us past the 350-year-old structure of the Jirye Artist Colony, the former house of a village yangban aristocrat (who once owned over one hundred cows!). The building had been moved to higher ground when a dam built downstream on the Nakdong River twenty years ago flooded the valley and the villages that had occupied it for centuries. As we crest the ridge above the colony, we look down at the three burial mounds and their headstones. Through a clearing in the trees, we can see the lake that has formed behind the dam. Despite its drowning of the villages and their history, the water adds to the tranquil setting for the deceased.

We begin by performing our double-bows at the gravesite of First Uncle, a man whom luck had passed by for much of his life. His was a hardscrabble, impoverished existence that finally succumbed to the silent agony of throat cancer. Even after his death, the absence of good luck plagued his children. It was only after a poong-soo (feng shui) master inspected First Uncle’s grave and recommended that it be angled fifteen degrees towards the lake that fortune finally began to seek out his descendants. Within a year of rebuilding the burial mound, a son was born to First Uncle’s first son.

We then move to Grandparents’ grave. A simple meal of dried fish and fresh fruit and a bottle of rice wine are laid out on the marble offering altar at the foot of the mound. Two pairs of chopsticks and spoons are placed on the fish. My First Cousin, the oldest male member of my generation, kneels before the altar, receives a porcelain cup of wine and pours its contents along the foot of the grave. The cup is refilled and replaced on the altar. First Cousin then signals for us to kneel and bow towards the mound and avert our eyes, thereby inviting Grandparents’ spirits to the meal. The Christians among us remain standing but lower their heads and close their eyes in prayer. Silence descends. The only visible movements are the bending of the surrounding wild grass by a cool breeze and the fluttering of a tiger-striped butterfly. After a suitable amount of time waiting in our prone positions for Grandparents to eat, First Cousin clears his throat – eh hem eh hem – to signal to the spirits that mealtime is over and to warn them that we are about to lift our eyes. We then rise to our feet, perform double-bows, and move on to the final gravesite.

This one is Father’s, and visiting him is the main reason that we are here. Twenty years ago, after investing ten years to establish and lead a science university, Father died in a freak accident while playing kickball – a kid’s game – with students and faculty to celebrate the school’s success. To commemorate the anniversary of the shocking, ironic event, a large contingent of his friends and colleagues have dressed in dark suits and neckties and journeyed for hours up and down narrow winding roads to pay their respects.

Suitably, the food offering set down on Father’s altar is a veritable feast. In addition to dried fish, there are skewers of egg-battered meats and a heaped platter of Korean dduk rice cakes. Fresh watermelon, pears and apples are laid out, as are dried persimmons and dessicated dates seasoned with black sesame seeds. To drink, there is both plum wine and traditional beobju rice wine. Father had always enjoyed his share of good food and liked his tipple.

Each of his children is instructed to pour wine into the grass of his burial mound, and then to perform a double-bow. His daughter follows the ritual with a face wet with tears. The entire assemblage is then asked to invite Father’s spirit to feed. As a group, we lower ourselves and lay our foreheads against the ground. As the world is hushed again, the smell of earth – dry but fertile – rises to me. The spring wind brushes against my neck and face. It carries the scents of the woods and the moisture from the lake. It sweeps in Father’s spirit. It brings us countless stories of fortunes received and taken during this valley’s long history. It consoles me.

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Phillip Kim
Korea
Last blog date: Oct 3rd, 2014

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