Thursday, May 31, 2012

R.I.P. 할아버지

My maternal grandfather passed away on Sunday at the age of 91 (he was 89 by American age reckoning).

After a very long life with five children and twelve grandchildren, he went quickly and without losing much of his sharp mind. What a life he's lived. And what a gracious gentleman he was, to the very end. He didn't suffer very much and he didn't cause others too much suffering with his passing.
The funeral process in Korea is very different from what I'm accustomed to from America. It's much longer and involves a lot more people. I was a little bit surprised by the amount of time we spent, as a family, in the funeral home.

I flew from LA to Korea on Friday (leaving on Thursday from LA and landing in Korea on Friday evening) and then spent Saturday in a jet-lagged daze. Because Monday was a public holiday in Korea (Buddha's birthday), I had planned to go down to Jeonju (my hometown) on Sunday and come back up to Ilsan on Monday, so that I could go into the office on Tuesday.

On Sunday morning, I woke up really early (thanks, jet-lag, thanks) and was surprised when my mother rang me up around 7:30 in the morning. My grandfather had passed away at 6:53.

The only cousin that I have that's older than me met me in Seoul so we could go down to Jeonju together. I threw some things in a bag, packed up all my electronics, and rushed over. We got to Jeonju in the afternoon and went straight to the funeral home, to my surprise.

What surprised me even further was that we, the family, were supposed to stay in the funeral home for three days. It's like sitting shiva for Jews, that's the closest equivalent I can think of. I've never been to a wake in the States, I've only ever attended funerals, so perhaps wakes are similar.

People come to the funeral home as they have time to pay their final respects. Younger members of the family (my generation, the grandchildren) greet guests at the front, where there's a handy desk with a guestbook, parking validation stamp, and locked box for envelopes of money (Koreans give money at weddings and funerals).

The guests generally came in, signed the guestbook, dropped off their envelopes of money, removed their shoes, and entered into the room where a large photograph of my grandfather sat among flowers. Some people performed deep bows (getting down on hands and knees), some people bowed their heads, some people took one of the white flowers and put them on the table in front of my grandfather's photograph, some people prayed; there were a variety of ways to pay respect.

There was always at least one male family member in the room, as after a guest pays their respects, one of the family members must be there to greet them, shake hands, accept condolences, and so forth. The family member then asked the guest to stay for a meal, and the guest moved into the next (large) room, which was set up like a restaurant.

Guests ate, some of them drank, my oldest uncle's proteges (he's a music professor) and some of the younger cousins acted as waiters, and we all shared stories about my grandfather. It's nice to say goodbye in that way, but it's also exhausting, to be honest.

The grandsons stayed at the funeral home all night long for two nights, because some guests arrived very late and it's bad form for no one to be there. The poor boys didn't get much sleep for two days-- though those of us that went home didn't get much sleep, either.

The funeral home, which is on the campus of a university hospital, is equipped for Korean funerals. There are black clothes for rent, including traditional Korean clothing, there are armbands for male family members (different stripes according to their relation to the deceased), there are candles (two were kept burning at all times), incense and incense holders for Buddhists, a safe in the back room (for the money), a shower, towels, a kitchen, kitchen staff that cooks and prepares all the food, and so on and so forth.

It's a huge production, to get a Korean funeral done. There's a saying that the people who take care of the funeral fall ill, and I now understand why they say it. For three or four days, there is no sleeping, sporadic meals, and then the constant grief.

Sunday passed in a whirl of guests, many of them acquainted with my parents and shocked at the fact that I'm fully grown. We didn't get home (I went to my oldest uncle's house, where my grandfather lived) until past midnight, everyone exhausted and looking awful.

Monday was a frightening day because it was the day that the funeral home prepares the body, during which family members are expected to participate. Turns out, participation is confined to spectating, other than when three of the guys had to help move my grandfather into his coffin and then all the males of the family carried the coffin out.
It's surreal to watch someone that you've loved all your life being cleaned and dressed in the clothing of funeral rites. It's even more surreal that he looked so much like my beloved grandfather but he wasn't moving, wasn't breathing, wasn't speaking, wasn't doing any of the things that I'd come to expect from him.

Because of his long life and his relatively easy passing, we had all managed to contain our tears. Many of my family members cried as we watched my grandfather being prepared for cremation and burial. It was the last time that any of us were ever going to see his face again.

On Tuesday, after I'd pumped myself full of Red Bull, we went to the funeral home for the last time, very early in the morning. We had a final service there before the coffin was transported to the cremation site, a depressing building full of surly workers and exhausted mourners.

The cremation took an hour and a half, a very short amount of time to reduce an entire person into an urn of ashes.

We took the urn and drove to the mountain where my great-grandparents are buried. My grandfather was buried beside his wife. They share one plaque.
The weather was sunny with soft breezes. Roses, my grandfather's favorite flower, were blooming all along the path up to his grave. It felt like his way of telling us that he was at peace and that it was okay to let go. He would have loved those roses, the weather, the fact that so many members of the family were together.

I hope he's with my grandmother. They haven't seen each other in seven years.


Amanda May 31, 2012 at 4:39 PM  

I'm sorry you lost your grandfather.

Rachael June 2, 2012 at 5:05 AM  

My condolences for your loss.

Diana E. Sung June 2, 2012 at 4:51 PM  

I'm so sorry for your loss, Jeanny.

jeanny June 3, 2012 at 7:28 PM  

Thank you, Rachael and Diana.

He was awesome and I'm so glad he's back with my grandmother now!