Posted by: rbbadger | February 4, 2009

The viewing

Well, this evening, we all went to Samsung Hospital to go to the viewing for my boss’ late mother.  Actually, it was not a viewing like anything you would be used to, as viewings of the deceased’s body are extremely uncommon here.  Where the viewing took place was in a separate building, but as is common practice, the rooms for the viewing were in the basement.  When we walked in, there was a large electronic display, not unlike the displays that you would see at an airport announcing arrivals and departures.  This board announced which rooms the viewings were taking place in as well as the names of the surviving family.

We walked down two flights of stairs and then went to sign the book.  On a small television screen by the entrance to room 20, there was a photo of the deceased along with her name, birth, and death dates.  Then, we went into the viewing room proper.  Lining the entrance to the room and in the room itself were a vast amounts of massive floral arrangements, all of which were taller than me and most of which bore ribbons identifying the names of the givers in Chinese characters.   Before entering, we took off our shoes, deposited the money (it is customary to give money to the family on these occasions), and went into the room.  The body was not there, but there was a memorial tablet in its place with her name on it in Chinese characters.  We all did the full bow to the memorial tablet and then turned and did the full bow to the family.  They in turn got down on their knees and did the full bow to us.  They were not wearing the traditional mourning dress, but all of the male members of the family were wearing black suits with white armbands and all of the female members were in black traditional Korean dresses.  Afterwards, we met the various family members including my boss’ father who still looks quite healthy for being in his late 80s.  Then, we went and had dinner in an adjacent dining room. 

His mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease for about seven years.  Besides trying to run a school, my boss and his wife have been caring for her as well as for his elderly father.  She had been in hospital fairly recently, but she seemed to be recovering.  She went very quickly.  The boss’ wife told me that she went into the room Tuesday morning to check on her and she was very cold.  She had gone peacefully during the night.  She will be buried on Thursday.  Again, embalming is almost never done in Korea, so there is a need to handle these affairs quickly.



  1. It sounds very formal. Was there any weeping or wailing? I love that the flower arrangements were taller than you!

    • No, there were was no weeping or wailing. Her death had been expected for a long time. I am told that at Chinese funerals, at least traditionally, it was not uncommon to hire professional mourners. Everything was very formal, though after we went to eat dinner, things were a bit noisier. The family couldn’t stay with us for very long, as people kept coming to pay their respects and they had to keep leaving to bow to the various mourners. There was quite a large turnout.

      The huge floral arrangements are very, very commonly seen in Korea. They are also a feature of opening new businesses. There was a bakery near my house in Gwangju that had closed for a while to do some renovations. For the next month or so, the massive flower arrangements stayed outside and lined the entrance to the bakery.

      For funerals, the standard flowers seem to be white chrysanthemums. White is the traditional colour of mourning in China and Korea. When the traditional Korean wedding ceremony is done, the bride wears red, a symbol of good fortune and longetivity. Western ceremonies are now more frequently done with white dresses, but there are still those who want to get married in the old traditional ways.

  2. That was going to be my question: are all the flowers white? But you answered that. I think it is neat that they have condolence money. I think that’s a good idea. Everyone is affected by death sometime in their lives, so why not help each other out?
    Quite a different viewing than we’re used to, huh? Do they have a funeral at the burial? Or is that completely different too?

    • Burials in Korea are often quite different than in the USA. If you drive through the country, or take a bus, you will often see graves on the sides of hills and mountains. Many families do buy a small amount of land to have a burial place for themselves and their parents. Sometimes, a geomancer, or feng shui (pung su in Korean) practitioner will be consulted to divine an auspicious burial site. Things are changing a bit, though. Some Buddhist temples have columbaria to hold the urns containing the ashes of the deceased. Other such columbaria exist outside of temples, as cremation is getting more and more popular.

      Currently, Korea does not require cremation as Japan and Taiwan do, but with the distinct possibility of running out burial places by 2030, it remains to be see what will happen.

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