▲ A large rectangular stone wall, or “sandam,” surrounds a large grave on a Jeju hillside, one of thousands on the island. The multitude of grave guardians, or spirit companions, suggests a person of prominence rests here. Photo courtesy Jeju National Museum
Drive along any road in Jeju, from a main highway to a remote country lane, and one of the first things you’ll notice are the iconic graves; individual high mounds surrounded by low stone walls. They are literally everywhere.
While in western society the deceased are neatly tucked away in orderly and generic cemeteries, decorated with plastic flowers and visited only on rare occasions, in Korea, and particularly in Jeju, the ancestors are kept close by. Irish author James Joyce could have been talking about Jeju when he famously wrote, “the dead are always with us.”
Ancestral gravesites are commonly placed on the family’s land, often marking property boundaries. After perhaps years of tilling, planting and caring for the land, it’s a fitting resting place. Now it’s their turn to watch over the land while the family carries on the work.
The site is traditionally chosen using an ancient method of divination based on topography. Graves are often located on the sides or top of Jeju’s many oreums, providing the ancestral spirits with soul-lifting views of the landscape. The graves are surrounded by either circular or rectangular stone walls, or “sandams,” created from the ubiquitous Jeju basalt, often brought up from the hole dug for the final resting place of the deceased. They are another example of Jeju’s stone culture, alongside the dolhareubang (stone grandfathers) and stone houses.
The way the walls are built can give an indication of the prominence of the grave’s tenant, with more elaborate walls signifying a person of importance and stature in the family and community. But everyone, regardless of rank, merits a stone wall of some kinds.
The walls also serve a practical purpose, as they can mark property boundaries and protect the grave from harm by grazing animals or fires. For many years Jeju grassland was annually burned to rid it of ticks and other pests. The last remaining example of this practice today is the annual winter ritual of setting fire to Saeybol Oreum, outside of Jeju City. The graves at the base of the oreum have to be carefully protected from the fire, lest it overrun them. For visitors to Jeju it’s an odd sight to see the usually placid gravesites surrounded by revelry of all sorts, culminating in fireworks and the lighting of the oreum by hundreds of raucous, torch-bearing people. One can only hope the ancestors are also enjoying the show.
While the walls may look unbreachable, each one actually contains a “secret” gate, or passage, so the spirit of the deceased can come and go at will. For men, the passage is built into the left side of the grave, while for women it’s placed on the right.
▲ Many graves are accompanied by stone guardians, or “Dongjaseok.” These are believed to keep the ancestral spirit company. They are often genial looking fellows. Photo courtesy Jeju Provincial Government
Gravesites also often contain small stone statues. These are not just art for the enjoyment of visitors. Donjaseok, or child stones, are carved from the same porous basalt rock, and placed inside the walled area as a spiritual companion, providing cheerful company to pass the long hours of eternity.
The figures are usually about 3 feet tall, with simple, smiling faces and long robes. There are often two of these stone children, facing each other across the foot of the grave. Perhaps they are keeping each other company as well.
Sometimes they are carved with hands crossed over their chest or holding foods the deceased was fond of. Other times they have no hands at all. The simple face is the most important feature.
Unfortunately, in recent years these iconic stone statues have garnered the unwanted attention of unscrupulous artifact collectors, who steal them from the graves to sell in souvenir shops and abroad. While many shops sell replicas, a wise buyer will steer clear of any that look too “real.” This is not a market to be encouraged.
Gravesites are maintained by remaining family members, particularly on the fall holiday devoted to the ancestors, Chuseok. On this day in September family members visit the graves and bring along the gardening equipment, pulling weeds, cutting the grass and generally sprucing it up for another year.
As more and more Jeju families move off the farms and into highrises, one can only hope they won’t forget the ancestors keeping watch over their beloved land.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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