I know better than to say “no” when a colleague asks if I have plans today. Always say yes. Always. Make something up. Anything. Of course, I said “no.” Six hours later, I was sitting at a traditional Korean funeral 150 miles away.
Mr. Kim came to my house Saturday morning to help me fix my computer. I thought he was making polite conversation when he asked if I had anything planned for the afternoon. I didn’t want to tell him that I had a date. He gets a little creepy when I mention women. He always wants to see pictures – and then he looks at them for a little too long.
So I said “no.” I knew I had screwed up immediately – he said “Good! You come fruerar.” I explained that he must be confused – a funeral is something that we do when a person dies. He said “Yes! Frunerar today.” We spent the next five minutes trying to understand one another. Finally, I realized that I had just been tricked into attending a funeral for a fellow teacher’s mother.
I hurried home and changed clothes. Mr. Kim picked me up at 2pm and we drove to a local store where a chartered bus was waiting. There were over 40 teachers on the bus. I couldn’t believe it – almost every teacher in the school volunteered to give up their Saturday in order to pay their respects to a woman none of them had ever met. The funeral was in Chungju (청주), which is 150 miles northwest of Daegu. It took 3 hours to get there.
The drive was quite nice. As soon as we were outside of Daegu, which took a surprisingly long time, we were surrounded by mountains, valleys, and small farming villages for over 100 miles. Some of the scenery was beautiful. I especially liked the small villages that were packed into tiny valleys. Koreans don’t waste a single acre of flat land.
We arrived at a funeral home in Chungju around 5pm. The family and a few dozen guests were already there. The family members all wore black suits with cream-colored mourning bands on their right arms. Much like an American receiving, it was not very organized. People were milling around and talking to family members. We said hello to the family members who were standing outside, and then we walked into the building.
*Side note: The only reason I knew this was a funeral home is because a few of the teachers thought it would be funny to try to scare me. “Inside is many dead body. You be very carefur (careful).” They thought this was hilarious. As you know, all Americans are scared by the mere mention of a dead body. It has never occurred to them that, during my years of investigating unattended deaths (and the occasional homicide), I might have come across a dead body.
We took off our shoes and walked inside the dining area in the funeral home. We were herded to the corner of the room, where there was a large display with flowers and a photo of the woman who died. I watched the other teachers and followed their lead as they bowed twice toward the display and then twice toward the family members beside it. These were not normal bows. They reminded me of Muslim bows during call to prayer. We knelt down on the floor, placed our hands and forehead on the ground, and then stood up again. Rinse and repeat.
When the bowing was finished, we ate. The food was excellent. In traditional Korean style, there were several small dishes from which we all ate. The kimchi and baked fish were the best. Shortly after I sat down, one of the family members brought me a cup of soup and a bowl of rice. They were absolutely amazing. The soup was hot as hell, but I powered through – sweating the whole time. I only took one picture inside – I felt that it was in bad taste to have my phone out snapping pictures at a receiving. After all, I didn’t exactly blend in.
No sooner did I finish my soup than we were instructed to return to the bus. I said goodbye to the family members, shook hands with them, and then returned to the bus. Mr. Han, the teacher whose mother passed, walked out and thanked each of us personally.
For the sake of not droning on any longer, I’ll spare you details from the ride back. Suffice it to say that I was not happy about arriving home at midnight, but it was great to have a true Korean cultural experience. This was true Korea – not a tourist trap or a guided tour. It was the real deal.
Until next time.