Chuseok – Ancestors and Ghosts


Chuseok – Ancestors and Ghosts

Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize

In September comes the greatest of the Korean holiday, the Chuseok (Thanksgiving). “No more no less, let it be as Hangawi (Another name for Chuseok)”, as we used to long for in the tough times, September is the month of harvest, and the Chuseok is a day when the memorial table legs are breaking with new crops of grain and fruits prepared for the ancestors. However, the reason for Chuseok’s significance isn’t behind the abundance on the table, but for the opportunity to gather as a family, and for the tradition of celebrating and remembering the ancestors.


I too have already paid my respect to my parents in law in Gimhae. The grass, which hadn’t settled when the burial mound was created 10 years ago, is now settled and covers the mound rather placidly. After pulling the weeds that were sticking out like bull’s horn, it is now nestled without much to touch up. As I looked around, there were more and more burial mounds covering the majority of the mountain. A lot of these mounds are covered with weed, as if nobody’s touch could reach it. In a busy world, who remains to watch over the mounds of the dead?


On the way back my mind is racing. When my husband and I are gone, there won’t be anyone else to take care of this place. The two people buried here have probably lost their flesh and are now in bare bones. Where are their souls? They were devout, and are likely in heaven as they wished. In life, I truly served them with extreme devotion. Even in my generation, the home of the in-laws’ was literally a difficult place, leaving me no peace of mind, and mistakes were many. But thinking that if I sincerely tried my best, they’d understand, I always gave it my all. They must’ve understood that feeling, because they loved me very much as well. However, since they’ve passed, I cannot see them anymore, not even in dreams.


With advances in technology, humans have gone to the moon, and with grounds won each day in the war against diseases, the human lifespan is beginning to close in the number 100. There was a time when infertility was one of seven valid reasons for a divorce and desertion, but it is no longer an insurmountable incurable – in fact it’s become a world where you can have twins, even triplets, if you want. Indeed, the world where fresh and excellent sperm can be chosen without the hassle of marriage lay just ahead. Like this, humans have achieved many deeds and pioneered mysterious and new fields, but there is still an area that remains outside of human efforts and reach: the ‘soul’ and the ‘life after death’. Across the history of humankind, none has witnessed one’s own death, nor attended one’s own funeral, nor walked out of one’s own grave. Save, Jesus and the likes.


Movie “Ghost”

This reminds me of the 1990 film ‘Ghost,’ directed by Jerry Zucker, and featuring the late Patrick Swayze, and the beautiful Demi Moore. The theme song ‘Unchained Melody’ too, is being touted as a masterpiece. It is a film which utilized the medium called a couple’s love, to show the nature of ghosts as though it was a certainty. Though still human imagination, it was a movie which suggested that the existence of a soul that’s left the body, or a ghost of unresolved spite, might be something like what it showed.


In any case, it seems certain that many people believe in the separation of the body and soul after death. This can easily be seen in funeral cultures. The Tibetan sky-burial, which provides the body of the dead to the birds, is one such example; the Buddhist cremation, which burns the body of the dead into ash is another; and though its practice has disappeared for the most part, the sea-burial of the island nations Britain and Japan too, attests to it. Like this, people seem to believe that in the end the body goes away, whereas the soul remains – somewhere. Though invisible to the eye, through sixth, no, seventh or even the eighth sense, they want to believe in the existence of soul, and do indeed believe. Just look at the number of people that are believers.
Although the answers to whether ghosts exist or not is unknown, nobody would like to be a vengeful ghost of horror with a blood and knife all over. Good or evil, vengeful or not, this life ends in this life. A grave is a grave, containing nothing but traces of the bodies turning to dust. Hearing the songs of the Native Americans who worship and live amidst nature, I think they believe that even in death, they return to nature as its part.
“Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there – I do not sleep. I am the thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints in snow, I am the sunlight on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain. As you awake with morning’s hush I am the swift-up-flinging rush of quiet birds in circling flight. Do not stand at my grave and cry,”…omitted (from “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep”)
Like a tsunami, the outpour of the Western culture has transformed and destroyed the preexisting culture of traditions of Korea, but if Chuseok is a joyous occasion, the respect for the ancestors should remain as well. We’ll have to remember that without them, we could not exist in this beautiful world. Our ancestors, who loved their children, probably wished for the happiness of their descendants. So if families that were spread out gathered together on Chuseok and shared in the food they lovingly prepared, and had time to close any distance or soften up, turning it into a time of sharing, then I think our ancestors in heaven, our ancestors that are in nature, and even the ghosts will be pleased.

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Marie Hong/Chief Editor