The question hit me a few weeks ago: When my parents die, will I choose to wear black or white to their funerals? Or rather, would they have wanted me to wear black or white? Because the color can symbolize death, it’s traditional for Koreans to wear white to funerals, but until last month I had only ever thought of this as a novel fun fact that existed solely outside of myself.
I’d never connected this custom to my own heritage because I felt so deeply entrenched in American life. For context, I was born and raised in the Midwest, but my parents moved back to Korea my freshman year of college. Subsequently, I lived with them in Busan for nearly half a year this past summer, forcing me to face an unfortunate reality: The rest of my parents’ lives would be spent across the world in a country that would never feel like home to me. Like most people, I don’t like to think about dying, or death or mortality, but this black or white question forces me to realize that, no matter how I feel, I need to educate myself on these real customs because they’re an inescapable part of me and my family.
I’d pondered the afterlife and the brevity of our existences many times, just like any other boring, responsible adult would, but I had never thought much about death in the context of my own culture. My experiences with broader Korean attitudes toward dying include a small handful of rites which I had to be gently coached through as an ignorant child.
I thought about death for the first time in the summer of 2008. I was seven years old and I remember taking a long car ride with my family to a mountain that had been carved into terraces. On every level was row after row of evenly spaced mounds of earth coated in a layer of grass, and I asked my mom what they were. She told me they were dead bodies. We walked around the cemetery trying to locate my grandpa, or as we know him, halabeoji. I was more fascinated than horrified by the hundreds of mounds surrounding us because, at that age, death didn’t even seem like a genuine possibility to me.
I caught onto the somber mood of the occasion and tried to be as quiet and still as possible (but, knowing me, I was probably neither quiet nor still), and when we got to his mound, my family prepared a makeshift shrine of sorts. They poured soju on his mound so he wouldn’t thirst, set his favorite foods in front of him so he could eat and even bought him a packet of cigarettes because he smoked in life. We stood in silence for a moment, and I felt the first vague, heavy sense that this man I never knew had been a real person just like me ― after all, he ate my favorite snacks, Peperos and sweet breads. I can usually ask my mom for any food I’m craving and she obliges, despite voicing some choice remarks about my health and weight gain — maybe it’s because I’m the maknae, or the youngest child, but she can never seem to tell me no. That day, however, I remember her gently saying that none of this was for me. Soon after that, we left.
None of this had been explained to me beforehand, but what I had participated in that day was called a jaesa, a ceremony traditionally held on every anniversary of a loved one’s death. We remember and honor them, and we bring them sustenance to eat and drink and enjoy in the spirit world.
The next time I participated in a jaesa, I was 15 walking through that same winding terrace; I remember feeling sick, unable to look up from the flat ground beneath my feet, terrified that my hand might graze one of the mounds by accident. Nothing makes me feel more mortal than walking through a Korean cemetery. Coming from a country where graveyards are intricately plotted fields strewn with commemorative headstones of varying shapes and materials, or even statues and monuments for the wealthier deceased, these identical mounds were impersonal to me. They made me feel as if, no matter how I lived my life, I was no different than anybody else, and that thought disquiets me. I say this after much reflection and a deeper analysis of these photos and my memory, but during the jaesa, all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there.
In our history, death is followed by funeral rites which were born out of the fear that our souls might be lost and unable to pass peacefully into the afterlife. It’s difficult for me to read about these customs without the curious intrigue of a complete outsider. I read texts as “their way of life” and “their customs,” and I detach myself from the narrative, detangle myself from any real responsibility. I read that the main duties fall to children of the deceased, and I don’t connect that this will be me and my sister someday down the line, trying to mourn and guide our parents’ spirits to the afterlife. Korean funeral customs reflect our rich history and our belief in the value of family. Pineun mulboda jinhada. Blood is thicker than water.
My halabeoji was a quiet man who didn’t like jokes: I don’t know how he managed to get along with my dad, who was always the rowdy class clown. I don’t know if halabeoji would have gotten along with me, who inherited so much of my dad’s happy irreverence. My mom is a lot like halabeoji: They both loved to read, a trait which was then passed down to me; they had strong work ethics, but could never understand those who didn’t. They were serious about their education, had no tolerance for people who didn’t use every minute of their days productively and had no qualms about telling them so. They were both artists. Maybe mom was halabeoji’s favorite because they were so similar, or maybe they were so similar because she was halabeoji’s favorite. But either way, he spoke to her more than his other children, two boys and two more girls, during a time when sons were the typical favorites (as they were to my halmeoni), and he talked to my mom with dignity and respect.
Halabeoji wore many hats: He was a police detective who solved murders, an aspiring judge who failed the bar, a high school teacher whose students, not knowing the relation, complained about him to their friend, my mom. He was bright, he went to college at a time when it wasn’t the norm to do so, especially in impoverished Korea. He was a prolific writer and an artist whose wife, my halmeoni, never one for sentiment, threw away his work after he died without telling my mom. Halabeoji was politically conservative which formed a rift between him and my mother, a rift she would later regret. He was highly knowledgeable about the world. He visited America once when I was two, my sister six, and he asked her if she knew where the Mississippi River was, which terrified her. He refused to call the Japanese anything but “those bastards,” and he had a lifelong hatred of communists for murdering his family, seizing his land and leaving him in squalor when he was young. The one time he got to meet me in 2003, he told my mom I looked just like she did when she was two years old.
My halabeoji passed away in July of 2003, weeks before his wife’s birthday. He died without warning. There was no diagnosis which would allow him to make amends or say his goodbyes. One day, he went out for a jog and then he fell and then he was brain dead. My mom was the fourth of five children, and her siblings had to argue over whether or not to turn off the machines which kept his body alive. Her oppa said, “He’s never going to wake up anyway,” and her unnies asked him, “How can you do this to our own father?”
She was in America when this happened. I was two years old, and it was almost the third anniversary of their move to a country she didn’t want to be in. Aunt Gyeonghwa was the one who called her and broke the news. My mom didn’t know airlines made exceptions for the bereaved, so she stayed behind in America, mourning alone while across the world, traditions were upheld and eventually everyone was able to collect themselves, without her. She sewed pillowcases and sofa coverings alone to cope with her grief.
I’ve never had a real connection with halabeoji, so I’m unsure why, in the past year, I’ve thought about him so often — almost obsessively — and tried to imagine what loss was like for my mom. I’ve tried to picture her feeling compelled to do this one simple task in the midst of her grief, driving to Joanne’s, purchasing yards of burnt orange fabric, and upholstering a couch. But I can’t, or maybe it’s just too difficult for me.
The truth is that I see a lot of myself in Mom now that my parents live in Korea and I live in Michigan.
We are living in a global pandemic. Traveling is not easy. If my mom goes out for a jog and then she falls and then she is brain dead, will I be able to lie next to her in bed, to hold her one last time before we turn off the machines? Or will I remain in America, will I have to buy a skein of yarn and learn to knit a blanket instead?
Halabeoji was, to me, nothing more than my dead grandpa for so long. I didn’t think about him. I never used to ask my mom any questions about her appa. Maybe I care about him now because, if my mom were to pass away unexpectedly soon, I would want my child to care about her halmeoni in a way that I never cared for halabeoji when I was a girl.
I text my mom for her recipes; I get her opinion on the clothes I shop for or the makeup looks I apply; I want her advice on every decision; I suddenly need to know what that job was that my halabeoji had wanted but he never passed the test for; I ask her where she was during the Gwangju Uprising and what she thought when she saw me for the very first time. I will continue to have those questions even after she’s gone, but then I will receive no answers. Asking myself what color to wear at her funeral is just one of those questions I need to ask her soon or I’ll never know.
Last week I finally asked her the question, carefully framing the situation as hypothetical even though we both understood it to be a very real decision I will someday have to make. She told me I should wear whatever I want to wear because she doesn’t think it matters, and told me not to worry because my family will be around for a long time. Later, when she hung up, she told me how much she loved me, that she was so proud of me. I realized then that even after she is gone and new questions arise, these are the answers which will sustain me through every moment of private mourning and solitude. I know I won’t receive all the answers I want, but that’s okay. The most important ones will always stay with me.