What’s in a Funeral? Korean, American-Mormon and Jewish Rites Compared

C. Paul Dredge

C. Paul Dredge, “What’s in a Funeral? Korean, American-Mormon and Jewish Rites Compared,” in Deity & Death, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 3–32.

Words are symbols we use to communicate with, but they are not the only communicative symbols in the human repertoire. Ritual practices—both religious and secular—embody myriad symbols which, like words, have meanings that are grounded in contrast and likeness as well as in actual experience (both conscious and unconscious) and which therefore communicate certain messages to both participants and observers associated with ritual activity. Of the symbolic systems that impart meaning to ritual, the anthropologist Edmund Leach says that

. . . symbols occur in sets and . . . the meaning of particular symbols is to be found in the contrast with other symbols rather than in the symbol as such.

And also:

The indices in non-verbal communication systems, like the sound elements in spoken language, do not have meaning as isolates, but only as members of sets. (Leach 1976:59, 112)

Like words, the meaning of ritual symbols is dependent upon contrast and likeness to other symbols in the same system and in associated systems. An example to be found in the Mormon ritual complex is the association of baptism, partaking of the sacrament, burial, birth, and resurrection—all of which are juxtaposed in contrast and likeness to give each of them a symbolic meaning that they could not otherwise have.

Of particular social significance are the rituals anthropologists usually call “the rites of passage.” (Van Gennep 1960) Rites of passage, which mark a transition from one stage of human life to the next, are common in all societies. They include such rites as christenings, circumcision, puberty rites, marriages, and funerals. [1] My analysis here will be limited to a brief and clearly incomplete discussion of aspects of funeral rites, their symbolic meanings, and the functions they provide, both social and psychological. In attempting to make a cross-cultural comparison and because of space limitations, the “forest of symbols” (after Turner 1967) will receive less than full treatment—a few important old trees will be the limit. The comparison presented here deals with American-Mormon, rural Korean, and some aspects of Jewish funerals. While the ideal discussion of such rites should include visual illustration of the funeral rites of each of these three cultures, verbal description will have to suffice. My own firsthand observations serve as the primary sources for describing Mormon and Korean funerals, while the description of Jewish funeral practices is based on research into textual sources and on term papers written by several Jewish students for a course on death and dying.

Although it is a somewhat arbitrary division, the symbols of a funeral can be divided into three parts. First, religious symbols point to beliefs about life after death and the influence of the dead on the living. Second, social symbols portray relationships between the dead and the living and among the living. Observing and interpreting social symbols can be called the “Moscow-on- May-Day” approach, since like analysts of the Soviet scene, we look at who stands where, who is present, and who is absent. If the analysts of the Soviet order can get an idea of the social order in the Kremlin from watching parades and processions, we can likewise acquire insights into the social order of the community by observing the ritual order. Third, since death is a universal feature of the human experience, the comparison of funeral symbolism cross-culturally transforms those symbols into what I call macro-social symbols. The analysis of these macro-social symbols helps to draw general conclusions about the nature of different cultures and brings into better focus the meaning of particular religious and social symbols. It is also useful to at least attempt to draw from these symbols some generalizations concerning humanity in general with regard to death and mourning.

The functions of ritual communication center on social and psychological influences. Social functions can either be conscious and even manipulated, such as the sending of flowers of a certain kind and expense in order to create a desired impression, or unconscious, such as the unstated feelings of solidarity and community which are created or reinforced by group participation in ritual activity. The psychological functions of concern here are those which have to do with individual adjustment to the reality of death—grief and mourning and the reintegration of the bereaved into normal life.

As mentioned above, the meanings of some of the symbols and their functions may not be grasped at the conscious level for the participants in a funeral. [2] The unconscious nature of the meaning of such symbols does not keep them from being extremely compelling and influential. The anthropologist who does a symbolic analysis of a ritual takes this fact into account in his methodology, which consists ideally of three basic components. The first is the observation and recording of actual ritual performance. It is useful to take photographs, especially moving pictures, so that details of the ritual which are overlooked in the first observation can be identified in subsequent review. Also, since each ritual is an event unique unto itself, a series of the same kind of rituals will provide a more clear picture of what the ideal performance should be, just as attending more than one game at Fenway Park is necessary before the rules of baseball and the pecking order of the Boston Red Sox become clear.

The second basic component of methodology in ritual analysis is to elicit the interpretations of the participants, both as written in texts and as expressed orally. While some analysts tend to discount native interpretations (cf. Levi-Strauss 1963), it is usually true that participants’ views can be very enlightening if only for the reason that what they perceive as true influences their behavior and the meaning they ascribe to ritual actions.

Third, the methodology of the anthropologist should include a full contextual analysis, an attempt to put an individual ritual performance in a perspective built on thorough understanding of the entire ethnographic complex. Hence, the anthropologist must be responsible for a knowledge of other religious rites, belief systems, social structure, political and economic forces, language and speech customs, and available historical records which pertain to the culture he is analyzing. Without a broad knowledge of ethnographic detail, the anthropologist’s insights will not take him further than what his informants have told him, and without transcending that native exegetic model of the ritual, he will not be able to get at the meanings which unconsciously motivate the feelings and actions of participants.

Funerals, as well as some other rites of passage, “create a social event out of a natural fact” (Malinowski 1954:52) and “convert the obligatory (and inevitable) into the desirable” (Turner 1967:30) through the use of symbolic communication. The onset of puberty or the occurrence of death are natural and inevitable (marriage is obligatory). But in order to cope with them, to live with the new situation and accept its reality and the new responsibilities, statuses, relationships, and emotions (often fear and misgiving) they entail, rites of passage transform the reality of these transitions into both social events, in which many can share the burden and reinforce the new order, and desirable facts, such as in the emphasis on joy and happiness at weddings and the deemphasis on the inevitable and sometimes frightening separations and challenges a wedding presents to the bride and groom. The pageantry of a funeral often supports the notion that being dead is better than the alternative, although it would be difficult to hold that opinion if the death had not already taken place.

Van Gennep outlines three stages in a rite of passage: (1) separation, (2) transition, and (3) incorporation. In a funeral, these stages are more difficult to identify than in puberty and initiation rites but can generally be associated with funeral procedures in the following way: separation is the actual death itself and the preparation of the body for disposal; the entire funeral ceremony can be said to constitute the transition stage; and incorporation is the procession to the place of disposal (the territory of the dead) and the actual burial, cremation, or abandonment of the body. In all stages, the deceased and the mourners are directly involved, as well as other members of the community; and, more than in some others rites of passage, the secondary actors rather than the deceased are the foci of many of the rites. When the process is completed, the mourners and deceased all stand in a slightly or perhaps substantially new and different relationship to each other. The deceased has a new status, that of decedent, which can often be as influential in the social world as his previous status was during his lifetime, since his widow, heir, and other survivors will be expected to substantially alter their behavior. (Vernon 1970)

Death and Funeral Preparations

In Korea, death occurs at home. When people are hospitalized for a serious chronic illness, every effort is made to bring them home to die so that their spirits will not wander and become disoriented—unhappy ancestral spirits make for bad family fortune. When death occurs, the women of the family immediately commence a loud wailing, “aigu, aigu” for a parent and “oi, oi” for another relation. This wailing seldom ceases during the period before burial. Someone is always with the corpse, a duty that is important because the spirit of the dead is still nearby and not yet at rest—the body still has importance to the spirit(s) that has left it and therefore to the survivors. The relatives are notified by foot messenger and through the mail, while those in the community learn from the sounds emanating from the home that a death has occurred. Relatives who live nearby rush to the scene to begin making arrangements and cooking the food that will be necessary to feed the funeral guests.

In the United States, chances are that the person will die in the hospital (approximately 70 percent die in some sort of institution), often unattended by anyone he knows well. Relatives will be notified by phone and the funeral director will take care of newspaper obituaries so that the community will be informed. Arrangements for the funeral and burial will be made by the specialist. Like the experience of witnessing birth in the United States, the observation of dying and death is seldom direct; the stark realities of these vital processes are mediated by institutions and privacy to the extent that many Americans are able to avoid almost any firsthand experience with them. We are a nation of middlemen and specialists with chains of responsibility, distribution, production, and information that allow us only fragmentary experience with many life processes; so to be half a step removed from birth or death is a natural feature of our unnatural culture. Even when a family member is present in the hospital, the death of a loved one demands silence and control, not wailing and emotional release.

Jewish people find a middle ground, with an individual who is suited and willing as the bedside attendant, faithful in his vigil until the moment of death. Like the Korean fear of dying in a strange place, the Jewish aversion to dying alone requires a member of the family at the deathbed, even if that bed is in a terminal cancer ward of a hospital. Of course, fears of loneliness and separation from home are most likely basic to humans everywhere, but the lack of a cultural prescription to deal with them often surrenders the dying to the impersonal ministry of medical technology. Those who may feel a responsibility nonetheless often abdicate in the hope that a professional, because he is supposedly better able to deal with what he must face daily, will fill their duties of final ministration. This tendency has become so prevalent that nurses and even doctors are currently being trained, as part of their regular career preparation, to deal with the social and psychological aspects of dying and the total (as opposed to merely physical) care of terminal patients. In short, the skills they are assumed to have are now being developed because that assumption has made them necessary. (See Kubler-Ross 1969, Hinton 1976)

Time is often symbolic. In funeral practices, the time between death and burial often expresses a message beyond mere practicality and necessity. Traditionally, Korean funerals were held three, five, seven, or nine days after the death of a person, depending on his social status. The longer the interval, the more prominent the citizen. This rule also had the function of providing for funeral guests to arrive from long distances, a more likely consideration for a decedent of wide power and associations. With the decline of class distinctions, most Korean funerals today are held on the third day after death (like the Biblical third day, the calculation includes the day of death, even if the person dies at 11:59 p.m.). True to tradition, however, the funeral of Mrs. Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated in August of 1974, the wife of Korea’s President Park, was held on the fifth day. By contrast, such time considerations seem to have little symbolic value in American society. Three days is normal unless something like the return of a son or daughter from a distant place causes the funeral to be postponed. Time is an important element in Jewish funerals, since the Jewish practice is to bury the person within twenty-four hours of death. Delay is an insult to the deceased, because the onset of decomposition in the traditionally unembalmed body is regarded as a terrible humiliation and insult to the deceased if it is allowed to begin before the placing of the body in the ground.

Upon death, survivors in any culture are left with the problem of what to do with the body of the deceased. Prescriptive cultural understandings provide a usual procedure for this task, which may be complex or quite simple but usually must begin in its early stages immediately after death. Malinowski has voiced important insights concerning this task:

The emotions [regarding the dead and his body] are extremely complex and even contradictory; the dominant elements, love of the dead and loathing of the corpse, passionate attachment to the personality still lingering about the body and a shattering fear of the gruesome thing that has been left over, these two elements seem to mingle and play into each other.

. . . the two-fold contradictory tendency, on the one hand to preserve the body, to keep its form intact, or to retain parts of it; on the other hand the desire to be done with it, to put it out of the way, to annihilate it completely. Mummification and burning are the two extreme expressions of this two-fold tendency. . . . in these customs is clearly expressed the fundamental attitude of mind of the surviving relative, friend or lover, the longing for all that remains of the dead person and the disgust and fear of the dreadful transformation wrought by death. (Malinowski 1948:48–50)

In earlier times in America, the custom was to keep a lock of hair of the deceased in a glass bell jar in the home, a clear manifestation of the reluctance to part with the body of the deceased. Malinowski states that one of the more interesting results of the conflict of attitudes he explains above is the gruesome custom of sarco-cannibalism in Melanesia. The flesh of the dead person is eaten, in piety, by his relatives, a practice which is regarded as a “supreme act of reverence, love and devotion.” (1948:50) At the same time, it is done with extreme repugnance and aversion, often accompanied by violent vomiting. A rather mild act by comparison, the kissing of a dead mother’s cheek by her daughters at a Mormon funeral I once attended illustrated the same conflicting attitudes. After one daughter had bestowed the kiss, she urged the others to do so as well. They conformed to her wishes in response to this challenge to their devotion, while clearly feeling repugnance at the thought of kissing a dead person.

All three traditions under discussion here prefer burial to cremation, but the preparation of the body before final disposition differs somewhat in each case. Koreans wash the body in incense water and dress it in a set of clothes especially prepared for use in burial. The ears and nose are plugged with cotton, coins are placed over the eyes, three spoonfuls of rice are placed in the mouth, the thumbs and toes are tied together so that the body will fit the narrow coffin, the body is arranged to face south—the proper direction for homes and cities to face also, into the sun—a quilt is placed over the body, and a folding screen is put up to shield the body from view. Family members are free to view the corpse if they wish, but it is extremely unusual for those who pay condolences at the home before the funeral procession to view the remains.

American Mormons follow the custom of their communities in having bodies embalmed, although, contrary to popular opinion, embalming is not a legal requirement in all states. (Massachusetts, for instance, has a law that requires embalming only in cases where the body must be transported over great distances by public conveyance.) The preservation of a body through embalming may reflect the Mormon religious belief in a literal physical resurrection, although there is no doctrine which indicates that steps should be taken to preserve the remains intact or in one place, and the practice of embalming is not peculiarly Mormon. Mormons also participate in viewing the corpse as part of the funeral process. Funeral directors will usually say that confrontation with the reality of death through the viewing of the corpse is good emotional therapy for the bereaved because it helps them to accept the finality of death and move on to a realistic and constructive adjustment to life without the deceased. At the same time, embalming fluid contains red dye to restore color, and this basic cosmetic preparation is combined with extensive efforts at makeup and other attempts at beautification that tend to disguise the true nature of death and, some would say, aid in its denial. The function of embalming is therefore ambiguous and its symbolism is open to debate. It does fit into the system of specialization which characterizes industrial societies. In comparison, the steps for preparing a body for burial in Korea are outlined in ritual handbooks available to anyone, handbooks which also contain instructions for the proper procedures at weddings, funerals, and ancestor veneration ceremonies in an instructional mode similar to that of handbooks on etiquette in America. Mormon Relief Society leadership manuals still contain instructions on the subject of preparation of the dead for burial, but the decline in the need for this service has meant that the instructions are less detailed in recent editions than they formerly were.

In the Jewish tradition, the body is prepared for burial in a procedure called the taharah. All parts of the body are washed with warm water while prayers and psalms are recited. Formerly the function of a family member, the taharah is now performed most often by a funeral director who must be acquainted with the details of the ceremony (and probably be Jewish himself) or by an organization known as the Hevra kaddisha (Holy society), a burial society formed of prominent and pious Jewish community members to insure proper burial and remove profit and commercialism in dealing with the dead. During the taharah, great care is taken to prevent the face of the deceased from looking downward, a serious sign of disrespect for the dead. The act of performing the taharah is regarded as a mitzvah, a deed of true charity, since the recipient of the service cannot repay the giver. Jewish tradition discourages embalming, since the decomposition of the body and its return to the earth are seen as natural and necessary processes. In a case where embalming is done, blood and other body fluids are retained and buried with the body. (See Lamm 1969)


Clothing associated with funerals is often highly symbolic, both in the case of burial clothing and mourning attire. In Korea, it is customary to prepare burial clothing well in advance of need, an act of filial piety on the part of adult children which shows respect and love for aging parents and assures them that a funeral will be properly conducted. The clothing itself is made of fine-quality material and is usually a subdued grey in color, like the clothing worn by the elderly while they are alive. The color is significant as it fits into the spectrum of traditional clothing styles and colors throughout the life cycle. A bride wears a red skirt and a green jacket, symbolic of life and fertility. Her clothing becomes more subdued in color as she gets older, finally centering on the subdued grey of the elderly which is also worn by Buddhist monks and nuns in Korea (who are usually celibate and who often inhabit a liminal world between the living and the dead). So from an apex of fertility and life at marriage, a person slowly moves toward a loss of fertility and the withdrawal from more and more activities of life in a gradual decline toward a natural end.

In contrast to most Americans, Mormons often receive burial clothing as gifts long before it is needed for that purpose. That such clothing is also used in temple ceremonies, and is therefore useful outside the context of death, does not totally negate the death-related significance of it. Few Americans can expect to be sent to the grave in clothing which, in some cases at least, their mothers made many years before, but this is not unusual for Mormon people. The feelings upon receipt of such a gift are not substantially different from those of the Korean parent who receives the gift of burial clothing, although the uses to which the temple clothing is put are more diverse. The Mormon clothing is highly symbolic, associated with temple ritual and various religious doctrines. In contrast to the Korean burial clothing, Mormons go to the grave wearing what could be regarded as a symbol of fertility—an appropriate symbolic expression of their belief in eternal increase. It is also of interest to note that burial clothing is the same as wedding clothing for Mormons, a feature of burials in parts of the American South in the past (Faulkner 1930) and a practice that corresponds with some features of Korean burial customs.

Jewish burial clothing consists of a three-piece shroud made of white linen. Like the Mormon clothing, it is the same for all people, symbolizing the equality of all before God. It is a stated requirement that the shroud have no pockets, a sign that no material goods can be taken to the other side. A white prayer shawl is sometimes included in the burial attire, but with one or more of the fringes removed to symbolize the new status of the wearer. The prayer shawl is often worn by the deceased before his death.

Korean mourning attire is by far the most complex of the three cultures. As illustrated in tables which are included in the funeral section of ritual handbooks, mourning dress varies according to the kinship relations between the mourner and the deceased. With the stated intent of discouraging excessive spending on funerals, a recent law has changed the type of clothing worn by those who are mourning, but the basic system has remained intact. Mourning clothes are currently made of slightly bleached hemp, a rather finely woven sort of sackcloth, and consist for men of four main parts: a cap, a coat, leggings, and straw shoes. Sons and grandsons all wear the full apparel, while unmarried daughters and granddaughters, daughters-in-law, and wives all wear the corresponding apparel for women. Nephews and cousins of the deceased wear the cap and the leggings at the funeral, but not the coat or the straw shoes, and relatives of the fifth and sixth degree, according to Korean reckoning (first cousins once removed and second cousins), wear only the cap. This group of kinsmen and the seventh and eighth degree relatives, who must attend a funeral but are not required to wear mourning clothes, make up a kinship group called the tangnae. The tangnae is the Korean unit of close kinship, involved in not only mourning responsibilities, but also in other sorts of mutual aid and ritual participation. It is interesting to note that speech between members of this kindred (for each tangnae group will be different for each individual) differs significantly from that between more distant kinsmen—a further correlation of the symbol of their closeness embodied in mourning attire. The traditional ideal was to wear mourning clothes for three years after the death of a parent and to live apart from normal society during that time, although few were financially able to make such sacrifices of potential labor. Today, it is unusual for mourners to continue to wear mourning attire after the funeral, except in the case of widows, who usually dress in white for a mourning period of one year. Sons and daughters of the deceased often pin small patches of the hempen cloth to their regular clothing as token indications of mourning while continuing to participate in normal activities. The participation of principal mourners in ancestral rites is forbidden, however, because of the belief that the deceased was lost by reason of their negligence, making such persons, therefore, ritually polluted.

Guilt, Penance, and Discomfort

The traditionally undyed or currently rough white color of Korean mourning clothes symbolizes the poverty of one who has lost a close relative as well as the liminality of the mourner’s position in the life cycle, as described above in reference to color symbolism in burial clothing. Since a person in mourning was traditionally supposed to isolate himself from normal living until his period of mourning was over, his clothing represented and continues to symbolize this withdrawal from everyday activity. Traditional mourning customs also stipulate that during the mourning period the bereaved are to restrict their diets rather severely and thus should carry canes to support them in their weakness. Hence the cane, a part of the mourning apparel which the recent law has declared obsolete and unnecessary, is a sign of coming weakness caused by fasting and decreased food intake.

The black clothing that is traditional for mourners in the West can be seen as symbolic of several concepts. If a bride wears white as a sign of purity, a widow wears black as a sign of her uncleanliness and of her own nearness to death. The historical background of black as a color of mourning is said to be associated with the fear of the ghost of the dead returning. By wearing black, the survivors could render themselves invisible to the ghosts of the dead, who were believed to come out only at night. The home of the deceased was also decorated in black in past years, with a black wreath on the door and the shades pulled. Mirrors were turned to the wall—a concern with beauty was regarded as an insult to the dead, since he was not beautiful and could not do anything to remedy that situation. Most of these practices have been abandoned today, although mirrors are still turned to the wall in Jewish households. Even the symbolic representation of death is something to avoid in our time. We seem, as Americans, to have become afraid or at least reluctant to face death. The applicability of such an assessment for Mormons, however, is subject to considerable doubt. If Mormons are willing to give up the trappings of mourning and bereavement, perhaps they are doing nothing more than following the admonition in the Bible to “let the dead bury their dead,” firm in the knowledge that those who die have only gone on to a new stage of life.

Jewish practice for the close relatives of the deceased is to tear their clothing at the moment of the death or news of the death, an act called the keriah. This custom provides a symbol of mourning, for the tear should not be more than superficially mended during the year of restricted activity which close family members should observe. For a son or a daughter, the tear should be over the heart, and for siblings, parents, or a spouse, it should be over the right breast. Tearing of clothing is also seen as an outlet for the emotions in a time of intense grief, and orthodox writers normally criticize the more recent custom of pinning a torn piece of cloth over the appropriate spot as a degenerate and unworthy practice.

Further Preparations—the Coffin

In a Korean village, relatives of the deceased place him in the plain pine coffin and prepare for the funeral procession. A woman’s marriage document is placed in the coffin with her so that, as one informant told me, she will be married in the afterlife as well. This practice is comparable to that of burial in wedding attire, as mentioned above. Other possessions, such as eyeglasses, a pipe, and a small purse of coins, are put in before the lid is nailed shut. A picture of the deceased and a paper tablet with his/her name on it are prepared for the procession and for the numerous rites which follow the funeral proper. These objects will house the soul of the deceased on the way to the grave so that he will not linger in the village.

Coffins in Korea are intended to rot away quickly so that the bones of the deceased can be exhumed, cleaned, and set in their final resting place directly in the earth. This contrasts with the very common use of metal caskets and airtight vaults in American burials, including those used by Mormons. Coffins for orthodox Jews must be made entirely of wood, even to the point that wooden pegs rather than nails should be used in their construction. Jewish cemeteries permit burial without a vault so that the coffin will rot quickly and the remains will decompose and return to the earth.

Among American Mormons, the final closing of the casket is a time of family togetherness, when the patriarch of the family, often the patrilineal successor to the deceased, pronounces the family prayer—a farewell and blessing for the deceased and his survivors. The final good-bye to the remains is often an extremely emotional time, and its restriction to members of the close family allows for a less inhibited show of feelings. One’s duty is to be present for this event, if a member of the immediate family, and to be absent is a sign of irresponsibility. Kinship is, after all, a pact built of both love and fear—fear of being alone or having no one to help in a crisis. Failure to be present at critical stages of a funeral is to renounce that pact, to refuse to reciprocate the faithfulness of the deceased, and to relinquish claim to the faithful attendance of other members of the family when they are most needed. I believe that it was for these reasons, although unstated at the time, that my mother was extremely upset with me when I missed the family prayer for my grandfather (I was only seven years old at the time). My own reaction was to feel very guilty and to learn that at the next opportunity I would feel better by behaving in the proper way. The symbolism and the function contained in any aspect of funeral ritual may not be openly stated or even consciously realized, but the reaction is swift when people behave improperly so as to detract from the symbol or inhibit its function.

The Funeral and the Procession

Much can be learned from close scrutiny of the Korean funeral procession. There is no eulogy or funeral service per se; condolences have been paid individually to the family members and to the spirit of the deceased (bowing to the picture of the deceased two times is the proper expression of respect, then one bow to the chief mourners and a word of condolence), and the guests have been served a meal which includes many delicacies and wine. In the late morning the coffin is brought out of the house and secured to the bier with seven lashes of straw rope which has been made by twisting straw in reverse of the normal direction, a symbol of the inverted status of the dead. In a rural village, the bottom framework of the bier, which will provide the means of the bearers’ carrying the coffin, is always community property. The decorative part of the bier may or may not be a communally owned object. In many areas of Korea, the bier is constructed of thin wood and paper, brightly colored and decorated with pictures of beings from the world of spirits where the deceased will begin his new life. Where the decorative portion of the bier is purchased for each individual funeral, it is possible to make a show of wealth and to purchase the best of three models commonly available (single, double, and triple tiered decorations). Hence the design of the bier becomes a symbol of wealth and of prestige, and along with the food provided for the guests becomes an indicator of the social status of the deceased and his family.

A canopy is placed over the bier, reminiscent of the canopies used for weddings and for ancestor veneration rites in the spring and autumn. The canopy denotes the sacred nature of the activities performed beneath it and is seen also as the covering for a temporary shrine for the deceased where those paying their respects bow to the picture and tablet of the deceased. On the two corners of the canopy that cover the front of the bier (where the head of the deceased is located), two characters are attached, written on white paper. The first means “respect” and the second is a charm character with no particular meaning, except that the handbooks say that it should be attached to the front of the bier. In front of the bier proper is carried the spirit chair or house, in which are kept the picture of the deceased and the tablet (paper or wooden) upon which is written his name. Preceding both of these are two banners, one red with the inscription written in silver: “The late scholar Kim of Kimhae (or other lineage designation)—his coffin,” and the other a piece of hempen cloth similar in size to that of the red banner which will be used to wipe the dirt off the top of the coffin and cover it before the actual burial.

The people who carry the banners, the spirit house, and the bier itself were traditionally servant-class people. When Korea was liberated from Japanese control at the end of World War II, the old class structure was gradually broken down, partially by means of a land reform law which gave land which formerly belonged to gentry-class landlords to the servants and tenants of those landlords. With financial freedom, the former servants did not have to demean themselves with the ritually polluting chores of coffin bearing, which left the gentry to do it for themselves.

Burial societies were formed by sons on behalf of their parents, and now when someone dies, his bier is borne by the members, or their sons, of the burial association. Still, the bearers wear small white hats which are paper imitations of the kerchief caps worn by the servants of old, and they take the same opportunities as the servants used to take to extort extra rewards for their efforts at a time when the bereaved can least afford to deny them. Each bridge and every intersection along the route to the grave is an opportunity to balk and demand cigarettes or money or wine, and the mourners come prepared to meet such demands as they follow the bier along the path. The banner carriers in the funerals I witnessed were men who still held servant status and were subject, by their own agreement, to the indignities of such a social situation—in exchange, of course, for a secure livelihood. Hence the funeral procession in a Korean village today is a depiction of both the old social order and some of the changes that have taken place in recent years.

If the class structure symbolized in a Korean funeral procession is now virtually gone, the relationships between kinsmen as they are illustrated in mourning dress and position in the procession are quite faithfully presented in symbol. By the time the procession begins, the wailing of the women is also more symbolic than real, since by the third day of wailing, most are too exhausted to feel very intense emotion. Women are usually allowed to follow the bier only as far as the edge of the village boundary; the function of this practice is explained as the protection of the women from the strain of a long trek up the mountainside to the burial site. Their exclusion from this activity does, however, correlate with other symbols of their marginal membership in the lineages into which they are either born or have married. A woman is always either about to leave the lineage through marriage, and is hence an inferior member of it, or has come from outside the lineage in the process of marriage, and is therefore a person of divided loyalties. Traditionally, a woman only goes all the way to the grave in her own casket, and students of Korean lineages and kinship structure state that it is indeed only at her death that she becomes a true member of her husband’s lineage. (Lee 1975)

Those with no ties of kinship who follow the bier to the grave are expressing their friendship and allegiance to either the deceased or members of his family. When most of the population of one village is made up of members of a single lineage, it is also a sign of village solidarity to attend the funeral and join the procession. [3]

The funeral procession, in Cholla province at least, normally stops by the roadside just outside the village for a final pause before the actual trip to the gravesite. This is the final chance for latecomers to pay their condolences and to be feasted. All those who attend a funeral are expected to make a donation to the family in memory of the deceased. These offerings, which can sometimes be rather large where the donor is trying to curry favor with the survivors, are used to defray the costs of the funeral. It is a rare funeral which does not pay for itself in this manner. The gesture of friendship functions as a form of life insurance with each family collecting in time of need and donating small amounts as others are in need of assistance.

Occasionally, the bier of the deceased will be decorated in white only with none of the colorful gaiety of the usual “flower bier.” Those in white are being buried in a state of ritual mourning for a relative, often a husband, and go to the grave in their mourning attire. Such is the strength of mourning obligations.

Behind the spirit house, and preceding the bier, walk the leaders of the chant recounting the good deeds of the deceased and expressing hope for his well-being on the other side. Bells are rung to attract the attention of the spirit and keep him on the road out of the village. The chant is practiced the night before the funeral by the bearers. The sound of the dirge echoes across the valley deep into the night, sometimes audible for several miles in the country silence, reminding all who hear of the funeral on the morrow and the inevitability of their own end. Well rehearsed, the chant leaders and the bearers are better able to address the spirit of the dead the next day, when their efforts must be successful.

The funeral procession at any American funeral, including a Mormon one, is also highly informative from a symbolic point of view. The order of the cars in a procession, at least where the family is concerned, symbolizes the relationships between the deceased and his relatives — those closest to the hearse are also the closest in terms of kinship. While this is obvious to any person who has attended a funeral, it is not trivial. Places in a funeral procession, like positions in a wedding line, are important indicators of relationships, and if a person finds himself in a position where he feels his status is symbolized as less than it should be, he will often express dissatisfaction, or at least feel as though his position has been denigrated. From another point of view, the order of the funeral procession is a rough approximation of the order of heirs to the estate of one who dies intestate, provided that all are in attendance who should be. The correspondence is not accidental. Unlike the Korean procession, which moves at a very slow and halting pace (whether due to the fatigue of the bearers and their harassment of the mourners or because the journey to the grave is a reluctant one—the reason is not clear), the motorcade drives purposefully, perhaps slowly but with no stops, to the cemetery. Most states have laws to allow funeral processions to ignore red lights and stop signs, and many communities provide a police escort to insure the safety of this practice. In Massachusetts, a funeral procession is required to stop for only one reason: to allow a wedding procession to pass. A Korean funeral procession which must pass along a major road in the countryside may tie up traffic for hours, since it need not relinquish the right of way for even a bus-full of people going to market. Such situations are particularly good for extorting more gifts from the mourners, if the bearers deem them able to afford it, and also from those whose passage in a bus or other vehicle is being blocked.

Like the number of layers on the bier and the quality and quantity of food served in the Korean case, American funerals can be said to be more or less opulent according to the amount of money spent on certain necessary items. The casket and flower offerings are the best cases in point. A funeral director is quoted in the following comment:

A funeral is not an occasion for cheapness. It is, in fact, an opportunity for the display of a status symbol which, by bolstering family pride, does much to assuage grief. . . . It seems highly probable that the most satisfying funeral service for the average family is one in which the costs has necessitated some degree of sacrifice. This permits the survivors to atone for any real or fancied neglect of the deceased prior to his death. (Vernon 1970:163)

The nature of human relationships—that is, the fact that we seldom do all we feel responsible for doing in any given relationship—often produces the guilt described above, with the result that we do tend to overspend on funerals, sometimes encouraged by a gentle nudge from the funeral director. (See Mitford 1963)

If the expense of the funeral is a symbolic gift to the dead, an atonement for the wrongs we may have done him, the floral offerings of friends and relatives are offerings to the mourners, expressing sincere sympathy or in some cases attempting to curry favor. A photo in the Boston Globe several years ago depicted the start of a funeral procession in the city’s North End where following the hearse there were twenty-two Cadillac flower cars full of bouquets. The deceased was the mother of an important under-world figure whose associates took the occasion as an opportunity to cement their alliances with the chief mourner. The money offerings at a Korean funeral can be used for a similar purpose, as in the case of a local government official who spent all that could be expected of one in his influential position, feeding five hundred guests from all over the province at his mother’s funeral. Though the funeral expenses amounted to over $1200, his would-be allies and friends gave him over $2500 in cash as condolence money.

In the U.S., funerals for those both destitute and virtually friendless are often paid for by a charity or church organization. I remember my mother speaking of the church paying for a funeral wreath so that there would be some flowers at the funeral of a person who had lived virtually outside the social world. In this case it was perhaps the collective guilt of the community, as well as their genuine concern, which motivated a floral offering. A wreath should be a symbol of friendship and care, but without other wreaths to accompany it, it becomes a symbol of the social life of the deceased, one which seems in this case to have been as empty as the chapel on the day of the funeral. The number in attendance at a funeral, as well as flowers from those who cannot attend, symbolize a person’s social importance. This symbol also functions as support for the mourners, assuring them that although one of their social relationships has been severed, many others are there to fill in some of the emptiness.

The contrast between floral and food offerings is instructive. Gifts of any kind are more appropriately luxury items than necessities—hence the designation “gift shop” for a place that sells pretty but almost invariably non-utilitarian items. The symbolism of a food offering is diluted by the fact of its utility, but flowers are pure symbol, since their only function is to look nice for a short space of time. An affluent society like our own can afford to spend lavishly on pure symbols, but in rural Korea, where the task of keeping food on the table has until quite recently been very difficult, the food offering at the altar to the deceased, financed largely through the contributions of the guests, will be consumed by either the guests themselves, the coffin bearers, or the mourners. Thus the offering is both symbolic and practical. Some nutritionists have estimated that for the average Korean farmer in the countryside, who normally does not buy meat for his own consumption, the pork and seafood eaten at funerals and other ritual occasions provides a vital source of protein. Also, the nutritional input comes at a time when it is most needed, during the cold winter, since most people seem to choose (if indeed it can be a choice) that season to die. [4]

The Grave and the Burial

Korean burials take place on a mountainside, usually on land owned by the lineage—a kind of huge family plot. The exact location of the grave in that area is something to be determined by a geomancer, a person trained in the understanding of the cosmic forces of yin andyang. By making certain astrological calculations and assessing the natural forces of land configuration, he is able to determine the direction in which the deceased should face when buried, as well as to choose an auspicious gravesite for the burial. Success in this venture insures the good fortune of the deceased person’s family. (See Yoon 1976) Quite often, the initial burial will be regarded as temporary, and the bones will be dug up and cleaned after three years to be reburied in a permanent resting place. The coffin itself is not important, and the faster it rots the better, but the bones should be preserved—lying in their proper order—so that the geomantic forces can influence family fortunes for the better. For this reason, most graves are located on ridges on the mountainside, where adequate drainage provides for a relatively dry grave and well-preserved bones. [5]

The direction in which the corpse faces in the Korean case is calculated according to each person’s own astrological coordinates , as indicated in his birth date and death date. The direction of the burial is recorded in the family genealogical record, along with the location of the grave, birth date, death date, information on the person’s spouse and his/her family, and a short biographical sketch if the person held political office. With such a record, the grave can almost always be located, even if it is not marked, and the success of the geomantic calculations can, over time, be assessed.

During the burial, the chief mourners stand on top of the coffin and tramp down the earth as it is thrown into the grave. This is a kind of final service they perform with the physical remains of the deceased and functions as a tangible involvement in the death process that helps the mourners to accept the finality of what has happened. The grave is completed by building a mound of dirt and covering it with turf. Graves are always highly visible, and not confined (in the countryside at least) to one or another particular area. In this way, the dead surround the living, keeping a vigil, and the living are reminded of their forebears and their responsibilities to carry on the traditions of those who have passed on.

After the burial, the first food offering to the transported spirit is made with the mourners bowing twice in unison and a message being read to the spirit. The funeral bier is burned near the gravesite and another wine and food offering is made to the mountain god, exhorting him to protect the grave from disturbance. The mountain ridges where people are buried are referred to as son san (“mountains of the elders”) and, where financially possible, a keeper is employed to watch over and care for the graves.

In the American tradition, graveyards used to be located next to churches, where they were highly visible. Later practice was, however, to locate cemeteries in the outskirts of a town—out of sight and therefore less a reminder of death’s presence. While gravesites do even now vary in price according to whether the view is good or not, nothing comparable to the geomantic tradition is found in burial customs in America.

Rather than the bare earth and the waiting grave that confront the Korean mourners as they approach the burial site, American custom is to cover such stark appearances with flowers and artificial grass. The mourners sometimes sit for a short graveside service but do not participate in the burial itself. Jewish practice is, however, to omit the cosmetics of the gravesite and to encourage the mourners to throw in at least the first few handfuls of dirt. Like the Korean custom, this allows physical, tangible confirmation of the reality of death and is, at the same time, service to the deceased. A study of the appearance of a Jewish cemetery will also reveal that no vault, with its function of preventing sinkage of the earth and grass above the coffin, is used. The terrain is bumpy and uneven with little or no effort at beautification. This contrasts with the American ideal in its extreme form, as illustrated by Forest Lawn Cemetery in California, which tends to look very little like a place where the dead are buried. Some call such visual euphemisms denial; others point to practicality (keeping the grass mowed is easier with non-protruding headstones); and others regard such beautifications as respect for the dead.

A close look at Utah cemeteries, where Mormons have been buried for several generations, reveals that Mormons are preferably buried facing east, all in rows, in anticipation of rising to meet Christ at His second coming. Koreans are buried in distinct, individual directions, and the contrast with Mormon burial conveys a symbolic message about the nature of religious beliefs in the two traditions. Confucianism, which is the foundation of Korean funeral practices (although there are some Buddhist elements involved), is thoroughly individual in nature—very few group meetings are held, and Confucianists owe little or no allegiance to a central authority. While Mormonism includes a belief in the individual “working out his own salvation,” it is clear that his participation in communal activities such as church worship is important and that his salvation is assured only through the Savior, whom he lies in wait to greet.

Post-Funeral Mourning

Korean custom used to call for a three-year mourning period for the parents or husband and lesser lengths of time for those less closely related. The practice now is for parents or spouse to be in an official state of mourning for a full year, although in practice, men do not often behave or dress differently except that their ritual participation is curtailed. For the first thirty days after the funeral of a parent, food offerings are made every morning and night in a shrine either in the home or in a hut constructed for that purpose in the yard. When the offerings are made, mourning attire is worn. After the first thirty days, offerings are made on the first and fifteenth of each lunar month. On the anniversary of the death, a kind of second funeral is held in which another feast is prepared and the relatives and friends who attended the original funeral come again, bow and pay respects to the deceased at an altar, and express condolences to the mourners. After this occasion, the mourning clothes are burned, the shrine is dismantled, and the family makes offerings to the deceased only on special holidays and on the anniversary of his death. Such ceremonies are held in the home for four generations after a person dies, performed by the direct male descendant through the line of eldest sons. With the fifth generation, rites are held only once a year, at the graveside rather than in the home, attended by what by then is usually a large number of descendants. This graveside rite never ceases. As long as there are descendants, there are offerings of food and wine for the ancestor. In this way the generations are linked together in a never-ending chain of rites and remembrance, and detailed genealogical records are kept to insure the continuity of such ancestral rites.

Jewish custom provides a seven-day period following the burial of the deceased called shiva. During this time, all the mourners stay in the home of the deceased, hold daily services there, and conform to the rules of the shiva period, which include not wearing leather shoes, not grooming or shaving (all mirrors in the house are covered), sitting on a low stool (closer to the ground which has claimed the deceased), abstaining from work or conducting any business, and wearing clothing which was torn in the keriah. The requirement that ten adult men be present in order to hold the daily service means that relatives and neighbors call on the mourners continually during this time; during the latter part of the week they often provide an additional resource for listening to and consoling the mourners in their grief. Sheloshim is the name of the thirty-day period of mourning which includes shiva and during which Jewish mourners slowly begin to reenter normal life. If the deceased was a parent, however, mourning continues for a full twelve months, during which those in mourning should not take part in anything festive or joyous. The clothing torn in the keriah is mended or discarded only at the end of the twelve-month period.

Korean and Jewish mourning customs share the common features of responsibility for mourning based on the degree of kin relationship between the deceased and the mourner and of decreasing intensity over the set period of a year. Mourners are encouraged, in these traditions, to withdraw initially from normal activities and then gradually to return to a fully active life. During the mourning period, there are institutionally organized occasions at which support for the mourners is expressed by friends and family members, and mourners themselves are encouraged to actively express their remembrance of the dead and their grief, both verbally and through physical activities and gestures (ritual). At first glance, the American tradition is, for Mormons and others, particularly impoverished in this regard. After the funeral, we are expected to return to normal activities—nothing we wear or observe to do sets us off outwardly as being in mourning. Many widows I have known do visit the graves of their husbands on the anniversary of death, but in doing so they lack the group support and social interaction which is institutionalized in other traditions. The American Memorial Day does function as an institutional support for mourners, and some extended families make it a practice to gather on that occasion to remember their parents and other family members who have passed on. Memorial Day does, however, function to depersonalize mourning by lumping it all together—as though there is a collective attempt to get it all over with so that we need not bother again until next year.

A recent photo published in the Boston Globe describes an “innovation” in the American funeral industry. An enterprising funeral director in Louisiana has installed a picture window next to the driveway of his funeral home, and a man is shown leaning out the window of his automobile to sign the guest register while “viewing” the deceased, who is on display in his casket on the other side of the window pane. The caption reads, in part: “If you don’t have the time or don’t like the tenseness of offering sympathies to survivors, there is a new innovation. . . .” While many Jews do not sit shiva and many Koreans do not observe the proper mourning rites, their traditions are nonetheless preserved and practiced by a large percentage of their people and function to reaffirm religious belief, to provide for effective grief work and reintegration for mourners, and to reinforce ritually the social structure, particularly the strength of families. If the drive-in wake is an indicator of the future direction of American funeral practices, we are facing the loss of even the meager mechanisms we have left to provide socially acceptable ways of dealing with death, grief, and mourning. In addition, such practices reinforce the prevalent denial of death’s reality among Americans, a denial built of fear, which causes a great deal of suffering for individuals and their families who always and finally have to confront what they have denied.

Are Mormons in America subject to the same fear and denial and, more to the point, are they left to fend for themselves, without benefit of institutional and ritual means to deal effectively with death? Beyond a strong belief in the afterlife with the reassurance that belief can bring, a casual investigation of funerals and mourning in Mormondom leaves one with the initial impression that, in the case of a death in his family, the Mormon in America is involved in only slightly more ritual than his non-Mormon neighbor. However, upon closer scrutiny, there is a ritual complex which, like Korean ancestor rites with their accompanying genealogical records and the graves of the ancestors looking down from the hillsides, serves to bind the generations together and enable the living to actively do something to preserve and extend those inter-generational ties. That complex is, of course, found in temple ceremonies, which focus most often on the dead. Temple rites allow a person in mourning to be reassured, ritually, of the continued existence of a loved one and to be reminded of the closeness between the world of the dead and that of the living. Not forcing a mourner into an active, socially demanding renewal of life, temple ceremonies nonetheless permit a person in mourning to actively engage in something he believes to be of benefit to others, thus helping him to turn away from withdrawal and grief toward an active, useful involvement. Attendance in the temple enables him to be alone in this thoughts without being lonely, and he can seek this environment, with its built-in social support, when he is most in need. Though temple worship does not normally perform such functions for the person not in mourning, for one who is trying to cope with the loss through death, Mormons temples can provide the same sort of emotional and social support as that available to the Korean or Jew in their more specialized rituals and mourning practices. The symbolic messages and the social and psychological functions of Mormon temple ceremonies are, from this point of view, very similar in structure, if not in content, to portions of other ritual complexes, most especially those associated with grief and mourning. The combination of the tradition of family prayer when a casket is closed, burial clothing of religious significance, and the symbolism and functions of temple rites, provides ritual mechanisms for coping with death beyond those available to the average non-Mormon American.


From the analysis of funeral rites and mourning customs in the context of these three traditions, it is clear that the usual behavior of those who suffer the loss of a relative or friend through death is both highly symbolic and strongly functional. Religious beliefs are illuminated symbolically in the construction and decoration of coffins, methods of burial, and the way the dead are regarded and dealt with in post-funeral rituals. Funerals are clear symbolic portrayals of the social order, and the contrast between funeral rites in two cultures, as in the comparison of Mormon-American with rural Korean funerals, can point to important differences in the ways the two societies are structured. Funeral ritual also functions to reify the prevailing social order in the minds of those who participate and observe, and to emphasize the changes in a family and/or community that occur with death. The seemingly universal tendency for people of all cultures to feel guilty or helpless or betrayed at the death of a loved one is dealt with quite effectively in institutionalized mourning customs and requirements.

Death is a universal, natural fact, but there are as many different ways to deal with it as there are cultural traditions among mankind. It is hoped that this rudimentary analysis of three of these ways will illustrate the wealth of information to be gained through the study of funerals and mourning and also provide the reader with further insight into what his own ritual tradition has to offer him.


[1] In Mormondom, the succession of rites of passage for males includes the blessing and naming of newborns, baptism, ordination to Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood, the temple endowment, missionary service, marriage, and the funeral.

[2] This idea can be attributed to Jung and his “collective unconscious,” as quoted in Turner 1967:36.

[3] My rapport with people in the village where I did my fieldwork suffered on one occasion when I should have attended a funeral and did not. An opportunity to symbolize my membership in the community passed, and my absence was a sign of my admitted outsider’s status.

[4] Of the fifteen deaths which occurred during my stay in the village, fourteen took place in the winter or early spring. The one exception was the funeral of a young man who died in a city hospital.

[5] The story is told of a man who hired a geomancer to find a good grave site (current fees for finding, not purchasing, a very good site are in excess of $500). The geomancer came upon what he regarded as a tremendously good site, saying that the fourth generation descendants of the person buried there would become fabulously successful. The client, not willing to wait for his descendants to benefit, dug up the bones of his great-grandfather and had them reinterred in the auspicious site. He of course became wealthy and famous.


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