|▲ A shaman performs a special ceremony after the body has been laid to rest. Photo courtesy Kim Yu Jeong
We remember our dead. The ways in which we do so provide healing to hearts consumed by grief and fill the void that the departed has left behind.
In Jeju's traditional culture, the death of a loved one is acknowledged and the deceased memorialized by a series of rituals. While there are other customs in Jeju today, scholar and social critic Kim Yu Jeong assures that a majority still follow traditional ways, modified in some respects.
Funeral proceedings, held over a full month in earlier times with a temporary burial on the fifth day, today take place over a five to seven day period. A majority of village residents participate in some way.
There are three primary phases of the traditional funeral and mourning process. The first is an elaborate processional through the village streets, the occupied casket supported on a large wooden pallet carried by 12 young village men who are unrelated to the deceased.
Pausing at favorite sites of the departed, a symbolic last visit of the community is made, complete with the pouring of a white rice soup onto the ground. Ahead of the procession, village women line each side of the path holding a white cotton rope by which the spirit of the deceased may travel forward.
Burial proceedings follow, and the dead are buried to the accompaniment of Confucian rituals. Men attend while women serve; the casket is draped with a banner displaying the lineage and, if the deceased is male, his name, profession, and standing in the community.
The rites involve chanting and the enactment of a drama as well as several rituals to honor the earth and the spirits of the burial site.
Following the burial, permissibly delayed but never built in advance, a stone fence is constructed around the gravesite. It has two gates: one for the living and another for the soul of the deceased.
The most important part of the burial proceedings occurs after the actual burial: the shamanic funeral “gut” or ritual ceremony.
While Confucian burial rituals are for and by the men as the women serve, it is the women of the family who facilitate the shamanic gut. They carefully select the shamans, participate fully, and carry out long-term follow-up rituals. Here it is the men who accept a supporting role.
The gut takes place at the home of the deceased and is the procedure by which the departed begins his or her long passage into the afterlife.
There is an elaborate altar on which the funeral photo of the departed rests amid multiple offerings to the gods and spirits. Before it, on a reed mat, are 12 gates through which the departed must pass. Each passage is ritualized. Paper carvings decorate the altar area as do stacks of red paper “money” meant to provide traveling funds.
Held over many hours long into the night, the gut has three primary stages. First, participants mime various acts of “path-making,” including motions of plowing and hoeing, to the otherworld. Coupled with this is a series of acts to drive away malevolent spirits.
Then the primary action of mourning. As the participants vocalize their grief, the shaman goes into a trance and acts as a medium for the spirit of the deceased. It is believed that the deceased thus speaks to each family member in turn, from the eldest to youngest female in descending order.
This experience allows for a full expression of grief and a final “direct” contact with the beloved.
Immediately following, participants express their wishes for the departed, and the shaman declares, “The gut is finished. It is good,” symbolizing a successful crossing over.
The ritual moves into its final stage, one of music, dancing, and merry-making. Seemingly incongruous, this allows for a return of hope and the beginning of healing as the emphasis shifts to the living.
The soul of the departed now moves into a state of limbo and is perceived as three distinct spirits: one which resides at the gravesite, another at the household altar dedicated to this purpose, and a third with the “heavenly emperor.”
The family, primarily the women, continue to conduct rituals for the departed for 3 years. If they are successful, the three spirits will reunite and cross over fully into the afterlife. Any one of them might fail at the crossing and become a malevolent, restless spirit in this world.
Rituals are performed at prescribed intervals of 15 days, 30 days, and on. There is also a daily ritual: meals are placed on the altar for the dead three times daily for 3 years following the person's death, though in recent years this observance has largely been reduced to 1 year.
The dead are permitted to return to the world of the living at five times throughout the year: seollal, hansik, dano, chuseok, and the anniversary of their death. Rituals serve to ensure that the spirits of the departed do not return to this world at any other time and in order that they should make a safe and complete crossing into the afterlife.
According to Kim Yu Jeong “The women are living with rituals throughout the year.”
(Interpretation by Song Jung Hee)
Next: Part 3: Concept of Afterlife
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist living on Jeju.