Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Korea and Death

This is a very brief account, and reflects my limited experience. If I learn more anytime soon I'll come back to edit this post.

My friend Son Byeongman died at the end of last week. We're the same age. I met Son in 2005 through Bongsan Talchum, where he became an isuja not long after I'd first met him. He was extremely dedicated, very serious about mask dance drama and the Korean arts, a graduate of the Korean National University of the Arts (K-Arts), and a full time performer. Everyone knew the story about Son-- that he'd gotten an amazing job at the most prestigious Korean company after graduating college, and then had realized that he didn't want to be a cog in the Korean corporate machine. He quit and went back to college, studying mask dance drama and devoting his life to the performing arts. Since most Korean performers either were tracked into performing arts from an early age, or were not academically gifted/dedicated enough to get a job with a major company, everyone was very impressed by Son's story.

I liked Son Byeongman most because when I would interview him (and he was someone I interviewed repeatedly) he was completely forthright and not afraid to say things that other people hedged around, hinting at the issue but not wanting to seem so critical. Son was willing to say it like it was, and I loved that. Interviews with him were very helpful. He had a reputation as a "무서운 선생님" or scary teacher. He got this reputation because he was so dedicated to his student's success (he often trained students who were auditioning for entry to K-Arts). Although they called him scary (I even saw someone cry once), they loved him for trying so hard, and everyone I know who was trained by him was accepted.

He was in a three man group called Cheonha Jeil Tal with my little brother Heo Changyeol and another man I don't know as well. I wrote about this group for my first published article.
Son Byeongman performing with Cheonha Jeil Tal

After a performance by Cheonha Jeil Tal. Son Byeongman is seated in the center. 

He died. How and why are a bit vague, it seems that he collapsed (no evidence of slipping on a wet floor or anything like that) while home alone. He was discovered 2-3 days after when his students got worried that he wasn't answering his phone. He had never been particularly robust, in fact he was very thin and weak, but even Changyeol did not know if he was actually diagnosed with any particular illness. He may have known and not wanted to burden others. He may have just figured that in our early 40s we don't need to worry that much. When I saw him in July he seemed thinner than usual, but no less energetic-- Son was driven from within by the force of his will.

After I found Son had died, I talked to Changyeol-- everyone had gathered at the funeral home.

In general one spends three days (two nights) in a funeral home (not in the same room as the body), grieving, praying, and saying good-bye. Friends and relatives stop by the funeral home (located within the grounds of a hospital) at any time and they stay as long as they want, depending on their feeling of closeness to the deceased. Changyeol spent the night. So did some of Son's former students.

I arrived at the funeral home, the entrance way lined with giant displays of white chrysanthemums with ribbons proclaiming the giver's name or organization. Son was having a low-key affair as his mother (and father?), grandparents, and siblings were all still alive-- larger and more elaborate ceremonies are held when the younger generation remains but a member of the older generation has passed on. One room was dedicated to Son. Inside there was an altar with his photo, his name, fruit, incense, and candles. Visitors came in, and slipped money into an envelope at the door (I gave 50,000 won, if I was closer it would have been more). The visitor's name (not Son's name and nothing else, no message of condolence) was written on the envelope and each visitor signed the guestbook (with their name and perhaps organization, but no message). Then they proceeded to the altar, and bowed (big bows, head touching the floor) two times (not more, not less, two is for the dead) to Son, followed by a bow from the waist. As I bowed two men were at the side of the mat/altar area. I believe this was a brother and maybe an uncle, or maybe his father. After I bowed to Son I should have bowed deeply to them once, then from my waist once. However, I messed this up and only bowed from the waist. I was unsure of the protocol, but watching the only other new guest who arrived after me I felt pretty embarrassed. Still, I presume they were not offended because I had come all the way to be there, and obviously I am not Korean.

After I bowed I was ushered to a table (a low table, so I was sitting on the floor). Interestingly the funeral home staff member was a woman I know, as well, she is also a performer of Bongsan Talchum. Since she had an official uniform and name tag, I think she is actually a regular employee, and this probably explains why he was taken to that funeral home, instead of another. She offered me drinks and fruit, and we talked for a few minutes. About fifteen family members were occupying the back corner of the room, many of them half asleep, none approached me, and I didn't know if I should approach and talk to any of them. The male blood relatives were all wearing hemp arm band stripes on their sleeves. Most of the men had double stripes. I think that a single stripe would be reserved for a son, and three for a grandson, but I might have that wrong. I'd spend more time researching that but I really have other stuff to do besides writing blogs!

While I was having my drink and wondering what I should be doing, Changyeol came into the room looking very sleepy. He'd been napping next door. We talked for a bit, and other people and friends also filed in and out, although they did not bow because they had already done that when they first arrived. Many were there because they were waiting to carry Son's body (or ashes?) out, formally, at noon when the three days would be over. Changyeol and some others ate instant noodles, kimchi, and rice, in the hushed atmosphere of the hall. Although funerals can be quite loud, full of screaming and crying, on the last day everyone seemed quite exhausted. Until an older couple arrived. The elderly woman, probably in her 70s, came to the altar with some large photos of Son performing, and after she bowed, she yelled at him, shaking a photo and crying. "See, here you are. Doing what you love. You have more performances to do, why did you leave so soon?" she wailed. Her husband tried to calm her. After forty minutes in the hushed environment I bowed and left, retracing my nearly three hour route back home.

I wish I had read this before going to the funeral, this is a very thorough blog entry on Seoul Site.
Here is a blog post I wrote in about 2000 or 2001 about another funeral I went to with some photos.

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