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The end of a life: Concepts of afterlifePart 3 of a 3-part series on death, burial, and bereavement traditions of Jeju
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승인 2011.03.26  16:59:35
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▲ One in a series of rites performed after the burial mound is set over the coffin. Photo courtesy Kim Yu Jeong

What happens to Jeju people after death?

Beliefs about afterlife can’t be entirely conceived according to one’s cultural matrix, as differing religious belief systems play a great role. However, in Jeju, as in mainland Korea, there is a remarkable religious syncretism, as evidenced by some overlapping of Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism and even Christianity.

A Shamanic tradition commonly called Mu (often termed “Musok” by scholars) is widely believed to be the original religious system of both the Korean peninsula and Jeju, though it takes a different form in each. The worship of Sanshin, mountain spirits, may precede even Mu, according to Professor David Mason of Kyunghee University, though this remains unconfirmed.

Buddhism arrived in Korea from China in the mid 4th century CE and has been present on Jeju for nearly the same period of time, though it was heavily suppressed throughout Korea during the 500-year Joseon dynastic period.

Finding little conflict with the existing shamanic system upon arrival, Buddhism integrated shamanic practices in a variety of ways.

Confucianism, more a social and intellectual structure than religious belief system, arrived in Korea at about the same time as Buddhism but only took firm hold at the time of the Joseon Dynasty – and even later on Jeju, according to local sources. Traditional funeral rites include Confucian ceremony, but the system does not have a distinct concept of afterlife.

Christianity, with its unique set of beliefs concerning afterlife, is a relative newcomer to Jeju Island and thus not a part of the traditional local practices.

At its core, Jeju’s traditional culture is shamanic. The customs and beliefs of Mu, while integrated to some degree with those of Buddhism, have heavily influenced Jeju’s traditions of burial and memorial and concepts of afterlife.

During the traditional funeral rites, 12 symbolic gates through which the spirit of the deceased must pass are constructed in front of the altar. Buckwheat – rather than the rice as used in the mainland – is placed in the palms and central chest of the deceased. Buckwheat assists with passing the spirit dogs that guard the gates to the afterlife.

The ultimate goal after death is to become a “legitimate ancestor” and reside in a spirit world with other deceased and the deities. Getting there, however, can be challenging.

It is the goal of family members to help ensure that the deceased reach the afterlife. In the short-term, the spirit is divided into three parts, one going to the heavens (“Heavenly Emperor”), one to the earth (grave), and one to the memorial altar. Ultimately, these three souls are meant to reintegrate before entering the spirit world as one.

According to Kim Yu Jeong, local scholar, the spirit world is a land of eternally blooming flowers, with each type of flower representing a particular deity. However, this is a mixed Buddhist-Shamanic concept and not universally adopted.

There is no clear notion of cosmos in Korean Shamanism as images of the spirit ascending to a place above and also horizontally crossing “to the other side” are employed. Funeral and memorial rituals focus not on particular cosmic patterns but on emotion and moments of crisis.

The dead, buried close to the home or in the midst of the farmland and residing as well on the memorial altar in the home, are ever-present and in communion with the living. The boundary between life and death is quite porous.

The living maintain the care, feeding, and entertainment of the spirits as well as deities and are permitted to ask favors in return or to ensure the fortune of the family in a reciprocal relationship.

In Jeju tradition there is an unfortunate additional possible outcome for one’s spirit after death: becoming a Chuksani or middle spirit that is restless and wanders the earth. This is typically the result of a violent or unusual death and discontent of the spirit.

Several types (determined by cause of death) of Chuksani exist, according to the work of Chin Song-gi, former scholar of Jeju folk customs. Wonsa is the spirit of one whose death brought about resentment; Kaeksa, death in a foreign place; Iksa, death by accident.

When no proper funeral ceremony or ongoing memorial services (chesa) can be performed, in cases like suicide, murder, or drowning – that is, when the body is not given a proper burial and resting place, and the spirit not fed at the altar by descendents, the spirit is hungry and can cause illness and distress in the living.

The shamanic rite to lead the dead into the afterlife is deemed critically important, according to Kim Yu Jeong. When asked about the victims of Sasam [local term for the mid-20th century period of mass killings], Kim asserted that any relative, however distant, or even village members would have secretly held a funeral ritual and maintained ancestral rites because it is imperative to do so.

A public shamanic rite for the victims of Sasam is now held annually, and numerous villages hold their own such ritual. A key element of this rite, according to scholar Kwon Heonik, is when the spirits of the dead tell participants of their grievances by way of the shaman. When they finish and begin asking about others present, in particular their families, it is believed that they have released their resentment.

This is sometimes termed the “Rite of Spirit Consolation.” Cultural anthropologist Kim Seong-nae calls it the “Lamentation of the Dead.”

Recently, villages have begun including in their memorial rituals those ancestors who were labeled “red” or communist during Sasam. Anti-communist laws still in existence forbid such; however, the descriptor was recently removed from the records of the victims.

One other Jeju folk concept of afterlife exists in legend: Ieodo.

An actual submerged island in the East Sea and today the site of an ocean research station, Ieodo also represents a mythical island of fantasy and utopia in the folk tales of Jeju people, much like the lost lands of Atlantis or Lemuria.

Fishermen lost at sea were said to reside on Ieodo. Widows went there upon their deaths, in reunion with their mates. The old dreamed of going to Ieodo; the diving women longed for it as their ancestral home.

Legends regarding Ieodo abound, which reflect the duality found in Taoism that further informs the beliefs of this region. The island was envisioned both with longing and apprehension, as could be said about any image of paradise: a desire to go there, but only after death. Ieodo was a mythical, and thus liminal, place outside of space and time.(*)

Perhaps Ieodo represents the lost kingdom of Tamna, the Jeju that is long gone, the idyllic past – of a people, of one’s childhood, of innocence – for which we all experience a deep longing.

(Interpretation by Song Jung Hee)

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.

(*) This article has been corrected since its initial posting. -- Ed.

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