Korean Births, Marriages and Deaths

Around 1997 I interviewed a friend, a Columban Catholic priest who had come to Korea right out of the seminary and lived there most of his adult life, probably over forty years. Father Bob Sweeney was much loved and admired by the people he served, both as a cleric and as a strong proponent of human rights in Korea. When he died a few years after our interview, he was deeply mourned and sorely missed.

Bob’s Story


I think attitudes about male preference are changing in Korea. The government’s putting out propaganda that the sex of the child shouldn’t matter. But still a family has to have at least one boy. I know a catechist [who instructs people before they’re admitted into the church], who I’d say was a sincere believer. His wife had six daughters, followed by two sons. After the second daughter, when she became aware that the child was a girl, she screamed and pulled her hair out. There are all the ramifications, the shame, and guilt. It certainly was in her psyche.

Consider what it must entail psychologically to be a girl who marries and goes to live with her husband’s family out in the countryside. Part of being accepted is getting pregnant. In the first two months she’s treated with kid gloves. If she gets pregnant, she moves deeper into the new family. If the first baby’s a son, she’s now a part of it, and she can relax. But if it’s a girl, she’s got to go through the pressure all over again. If it’s another girl, especially if there are no mediating factors like Christianity, then she’s not accepted. Or if she doesn’t get pregnant as fast as she’s expected to be, then—you know what they call nunchi [figuring out what’s on someone’s mind]. The old grandmother will eyeball her, and it’s clear there’s something wrong.

Nowadays people come to grips with childlessness more. They’re more willing to get tested and find out what the problem is, but not as much as they are in the States. Here there’s so much “face” involved. Certainly the man should never be physically incapable of fathering children.

Lately there’s been a big government push to use birth control, but you’re expected to have two children, regardless. Anyway, there are stringent laws that cut you off from certain benefits if you have more than two, for example if you’re a civil servant. Because of economic development, people accepted the idea of having only two children. There are exceptions, like the people next door. They’ve been married about seven or eight years, and they had three boys, but they wanted to have a daughter. The mother was going to church a lot before the fourth child was born, I presume praying for a daughter. The ideal is to have a son, then daughter, in that order.

Long ago, when babies were born at home, there was a custom of putting straw ropes across the gate of the house compound. That was something to ward off evil spirits and disease. There were red peppers were spliced into that rice straw rope if it was a boy. People didn’t visit when there was a new baby in the house. In the countryside, the priests used to do rounds, with mission stations away from the central parish church. If the priest wasn’t available, then the catechist in that local community would do the baptisms, a simple ceremony of pouring water, to make sure the baby was baptized. When the priest came, usually around Easter or Christmas time, he would do the other ceremony, putting salt on the baby’s tongue and anointing the baby with oil. But now with baby’s being born in the hospital, there’s no big rush to have them baptized. The presumption being that they’re going to live. But now the births take place in a hospital, and after the birth the mother goes to her own mother for a week of laying in.

After the first hundred days of a child’s life, there’s a party with eating and drinking and presents, a sort of delayed birth celebration. This celebration can be big, especially for the first baby. They take a picture of the baby in clothes and head gear designed for Chosun Dynasty royalty. If it’s a boy his penis is visible in the picture. They still do the Confucian thing of putting objects in front of the baby—the pen, arrow—whatever the baby grabs, that’s what his future occupation going to be.


In the old days the atmosphere at the village weddings was really marvelous, with people in the village working for a week to prepare the food. Weddings nowadays are in a church or a wedding hall, followed by a meal in a restaurant. In a wedding hall the ceremony can be over in fifteen minutes. Some people don’t even stay for the ceremony. They come with the envelope and they register at the church door or at the wedding hall door. Records are kept of who gave how much, so that the gift can be reciprocated later. Some people just go to the restaurant and eat and go home. It’s the same with funerals.

There are still arranged marriages, although there are far fewer than there used to be. People who right now are in their sixties or seventies might have never seen their spouse before the day of the marriage when the bride came to the home of her husband’s extended family.

Nowadays women are reluctant to marry an oldest son, although of course now in the city a wife doesn’t live with the husband’s parents. Still, the oldest son and his wife are considered responsible for them. There’s the psychological pressure I spoke of during the first year, getting broken into the family and that eyeballing from the mother-in-law. In the old days there might have been two or three sons and their wives living with the parents.

Next door to me there were three brothers and their wives living together, even after their parents died. The older brother was in debt for gambling, so the two younger brothers shuffled him off somewhere while they stayed on in the family place, spending very little money and working hard to pay off his debts. Then the older brother came back and tossed them out. So the wives of the two younger brothers hate the oldest brother and his wife. But then family ties and traditions are strong here. So on holidays or the oldest brother’s sixtieth birthday, they came and posed for all the pictures. When the oldest brother’s son was married—the one who had three sons and now a daughter—they all wore the costumes that the parents of the bridegroom buy for his family. So it’s all like everything is hunky-dory, but inside there’s really violent hatred.

It’s evident that in Asia people can live on those two levels without feeling a sense of hypocrisy.  They don’t see anything dishonest about it. They think it is virtuous to be able to preserve harmony and order in the Confucian ethos. That’s on the outside, whereas on the inside you have a completely different picture. They don’t see it as being two-faced. We may say they’re spineless and not upfront. In fact, they think that we are—according to some commentators—more naïve and less cultured than they are.

A modern grandfather and granddaughter

A lot of young people—men and women—from the country move to the city and work in factories. They live together and have children, and then get married two or three years later. It’s dreadfully important for the parents and for the couple that they have a ceremony, although it’s not a really big embarrassment, even in a Catholic setting, to have two kids in the house already. The picture in the wedding dress and the suit is almost more important than the ceremony. The picture is a kind of marriage document.

Often there’s a ruse too. The guy next door shared a hospital room with an alcoholic whose daughter used to visit. The daughter and the young man fell head over heels in love. Her parents didn’t want her to have to move to the countryside, but they weren’t so well-fixed that they could outright refuse. They said, “Wait three years.” So the young people got pregnant so her parents would allow them to marry. When she came to the family there was a honeymoon period of a couple of months, and their son was born.

But then came the workload. The woman is on her fourth child now, so she hasn’t had that much to do in the fields. But there’s all the household laundry and the mother-in-law and the culture shock of moving from the city to the country, where prejudice against women is stronger and conditions are not as good. Although they have improved. In the past ten years, every house in our village has been modernized. The kitchens are enclosed like modern kitchens. But some of them still don’t have indoor toilets. They have outhouses and washrooms, shower rooms with a tub and hot water boilers.


Village at the edge of Kyongju

Death is a community thing, particularly in the countryside. As soon as the news breaks, everybody in the village comes to that house. The extended family is busy making arrangements, ordering the coffin and the white hemp clothes and the food for the feast. Fifty to a hundred village people—men—just come and hunker down and surround the house. They don’t say anything, except for maybe talking a bit among themselves. They offer their presence and the sense of sharing your sorrow by being there. It’s really impressive. In the village where I am, everybody in the village is there for three days, the day of the death and then the next and the day of the burial. They just go home to sleep. The bereaved family has to welcome anyone who comes. Guests bring an envelope containing money. They used to bring food in the old days. But a family can go broke feeding all those people for three days. Poor people thrive on following funerals, where they go and really chow down.

Woman in white hanbok and headscarf

For the funeral the women in the village help in the preparations, which they used to do with weddings also. All the ajumonis, or “aunties,” in the village come together, and things go smoothly. Meals are prepared for a hundred people, and guests are coming and going from other villages. Also local politicians get a table set up with booze and rice cake and pork. Without anyone giving orders, people know what to do. The preparing vegetables and rice and kimchi and setting tables and washing dishes all seems to happen automatically. There’s no fighting and no apparent jealousy. You know a lot of people are not great friends, like in the family I told you about, but everything just goes like clockwork. While they’re cooking, the men are occupied with digging the grave and making the covering for the coffin.

In the countryside people aren’t careful with pesticides and herbicides, and there are more deaths to cancer than in the cities. People buy prohibitively expensive medicines that have no curative value at all, but keep the body alive for a few more days, which is misery for the dying. It’s considered filial piety to show their respect and love for the parent, usually the father. There’s “face” involved. “We did everything, sparing no expense.”  The body is cleaned, washed and coffined on the second day, the day after the death. Formerly, the people put on the white clothes and received the guests on that day. Now the oldest son wears a dark overcoat thrown over, leaving the other shoulder exposed.

On the afternoon of day when the body is put in the coffin, so halfway between the death and the burial, all the sons put on the white clothes, the hempen clothes and line up at the door to receive guest-mourners. But in the city now they wear black suits with the ribbon of hemp or else a black armband. In the country there are the flags with red and white streamers—which used to have Confucian sayings—and then a colorful coffin cover. The dead need a good send-off so the person will be at peace and not come around to bother the living. People living on the sea may drown, and the body isn’t found. That’s a bad scene. They still have shamanist rituals for people who died at sea, although not among Catholics. It’s supposedly a no-no.

The Catholics have a beautiful prayer ceremony that they chant, with psalms and litanies and other prayers. There are Gregorian chants, which the old French priests tried to teach the Koreans, but they come out more like chanting in a Buddhist temple. It’s really beautiful. All during the day different church groups will come and chant in front of the coffin. The chanting takes about half an hour or an hour. After one group finishes a group from maybe the next village will chant.

They do the deep bowing [prostrations] for Catholic funerals as well as Buddhist funerals. The men of the family stand at the door of the room holding the coffin. The guests come and bow once to the sons, go inside and bow twice to the coffin. The things they say are formulas, but there’s a familiarity with death and a sense that it’s all right. I think your observation is correct that Koreans really shine in situations like this.

There’s also a sensitivity with regard to foreigners. We had a priest who didn’t go back to Ireland when a parent died, but the Koreans had a wake for him here in the rectory, and they killed a pig. For three days—even though the body was over in Ireland—they went through the whole thing. They stayed up all night with the priest, and there was a lot of drinking like an Irish wake. There was a bonding, a sympathy and the feeling the ceremonies needed to be done, especially for a parent. There’s no place where people are better.

When they’re going from the church to the grave site, there’s a lot of kidding. The guys carrying the coffin will stop and not move on until they’re given money given for booze. Drunkenness among men is just accepted. There are billions of customs about the best place for the grave site and the direction the body lies in and all the oneupmanship—and this is even in the Catholic tradition—among the elders in the village. There are no burial mounds in the Catholic tradition, but there’s the questions of where the grave site will be and who’s in charge of digging the grave. There’s a lot of “face” established.

I went to a ceremony for a young man died, leaving a wife and two young children. In the grave they put two envelopes, blue and pink, representing husband and wife, I suppose with the presumption that she’s not supposed to marry again. They’re bound together like eternity. There’s a prejudice against second marriages. Widows aren’t supposed to remarry, although they do now.

At funerals the women are supposed to wail and scream for a mother-in-law they despised. Then at the grave they threaten to throw themselves in, and often you know that it’s pure show. There’s talk in the village. “I wonder if she’s going to cry.”

A big problem is gambling all night while the men accompany the mourners. That can get into some really tough deals. The loan sharks follow the funerals. That’s how to make big money. There’s a lot of drinking, and it gets loud and raucous. At one funeral people were drinking and gambling, and a guy who was a little unbalanced asked a neighbor to lend him 10,000 won [maybe $13 at the time] so he could gamble. Both men were drunk. When the neighbor refused, the guy grabbed a knife—people were cutting up pork, so knives were all around—and put it through the other guy’s heart. This is at a Catholic funeral. Later he turned himself in. He was sentenced to only three years because he’d suffered brain damage when he was younger.

After the burial on the third day, everyone comes back to the house for the final meal, which would be like at lunchtime, and then again that evening. That’s it. Then on the third day after that, which would be the fifth day after the death, the family goes to the burial site and bows again. That’s Confucian. So it goes on really for five days. Then the immediate family leaves, sons and daughters or brothers and sisters.

In the old days the mourning period was three years—meaning two years, because the year of the death was considered the first year—when they had to stay at the burial place. But then it was cut back to one year, and then back to a hundred days, when they burn the hemp clothes. Some do it in forty-nine days, especially if it’s a man that wants to get married again. At the end of the mourning period, the family goes to the grave site and bows and all that. They have a meal, and then they come together and come to the house after mass about seven, eight-thirty, nine. Then they do this prayer service again, this chanting. This would be the family, relatives, brothers and sisters, and the local community again, although not as many as the funeral, maybe twenty or twenty-five people. They chant, and then there’s a table brought in with fish dishes and pork, rice cakes, kimchi. But the thing is the ambiance. There’s a warmth there, a togetherness. On the last thing at night is burning the hemp clothes and then these bamboo sticks that the men carried to the grave and back. When those are burned, it’s the official end of the mourning period.

Americans aren’t that comfortable with death, we don’t see it. Children don’t go to the hospital or the funeral home. Even adults just do their two-to-four at the funeral home, and then go to the restaurant or somebody’s house to eat. The body is left at the funeral home for the next day, which would be absolutely inconceivable here. In Korea, even if you’ve been hospitalized, if it’s time to die you’re sent home. So everybody in the village, from babies up, lives with death. It’s not an unfamiliar or frightening thing. They just grow up with it and grow into these traditions, knowing what to do.

I’ve often thought it was ridiculous for Christian missionaries supposedly to come to Korean communities to teach people how to love each other. When you consider that the first thing an American boy wants is to get his own room, not share one with his brother. Whereas Koreans, more so formerly than now, have a family often in one room. It’s such bullshit to imagine Westerners, who can’t get separate and private fast enough, coming out to teach people Christian principles of love. Letting it all hang out and telling people what you think and where it’s at—you can’t do that in these circumstances. There would just be absolute mayhem. So the Koreans find patience, tolerance, forgiveness, letting things go, moving on and accepting things, accepting fate. The downside is that people may put up with too much. It’s amazing what parents will do for the children, and what siblings—also, especially back in the days of large families—did for each other. The same would have been true at home in big families. You learn a lot more about living together.