Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Zachary S. in Arkansas asks:
How do funerals work in North Korea? Is it costly for an average North Korean to have normal funerals?
Funerals in North Korea are not like they are in South Korea. In South Korea, most of the bigger hospitals and chapels provide venues for funerals, but in North Korea, there are no funeral homes or any places set up specifically for funerals. Most are held at home, though there are a couple of exceptions. In North Korea, there’s an old custom that the body of a person who died in a foreign land cannot enter the house. So, if someone dies while they’re out of the country, the funeral would be held in that person’s workplace, either in a hallway or an office.
“In North Korea, there’s an old custom that the body of a person who died in a foreign land cannot enter the house”
High-ranking military personnel don’t have funerals at home, either. When an executive officer dies, a funeral committee is set up and students and residents in town are mobilized to hold a grand memorial service. These kinds of funerals are usually held in a spacious hall at the central offices.
North Korean funerals usually last for three days. However, a special adjustment is made when someone dies at the end of the month. In North Korea, there is a superstition that the coffin has to leave the house during the same month in which the person died. If a person dies on the 29th, the coffin has to be out of the house on the 30th, the 31st at the latest. However, this custom is not strictly followed. Because of travel restrictions, even to go from one town to another, people have to wait for their permits to be issued. It usually takes, at minimum, two to three days to get them. Plus, North Korea’s outdated transportation system makes it impossible for many people to arrive on time, anyway. Funerals sometimes have to be postponed while they wait for the immediate family to arrive. If guests are coming from far away, some people will extend the funeral four days long to accommodate them.
Sometimes, people miss their own parents’ funerals because they couldn’t make it in time. They have to carry these painful feelings of guilt for the rest of their lives. If someone dies during their military service, the parents are notified of the death shortly afterward, but usually they can’t make the funeral. It’s especially hard if the parents live in the countryside, where telephones are a rarity. They get notified by telegram, which generally take seven to ten days to arrive. These parents cannot do anything but go to their child’s gravesite, long after the funeral is over, and cry. After my grandmother passed away at my uncle’s house, my mom and dad had to wait for the local government to issue their travel passes. My parents used all the resources they had to get the passes issued faster, and just barely made it to the funeral before the coffin was lowered into the ground. You know what? My uncle only lived 100 miles away.
“After my grandmother passed away at my uncle’s house, my mom and dad had to wait for the local government to issue their travel passes…they just barely made it”
There is really no concept of an ‘undertaker’ in North Korea. You can find one or two in town if you ask around, but they are mostly elderly people who just so happen to have experience taking care of corpses, neither certified nor licensed. My uncle found an undertaker for my grandmother this way. We could not afford to buy new clothes to bury her in, so we dressed her in her old, thin summer blouse. My mother suffered from nightmares for awhile after that; she said grandma appeared in her dreams saying it was too cold. Mother felt heavy guilt that she couldn’t get her a winter coat for the trip to heaven.
There’s no particular dress code for funeral hosts. My uncle was the host at my grandmother’s, and his colleagues helped him. At night, they played cards to stay awake. I helped my aunt cook rice and side dishes for guests. It was a good thing that the funeral was in winter. During the summer, I heard corpses would start to decay when the room got hot.
“I heard corpses would start to decay when the room got hot”
In North Korea, there is no thing as disposable cutlery or dishes, so you have to borrow them from your neighbors for the event. Funeral guests usually bring a bit of food, maybe some corn or beans, with them. Some people give cash to the host to express their condolences. In return, funeral hosts pack up food from the service so the guests can bring it home to share with their families. To North Koreans who are already suffering from economic hardship, you can imagine what kind of financial burden funerals can bring about.
My uncle’s friends were able to secure a gravesite for my grandmother. Certain mountains are assigned by local authorities to be used as cemeteries, and I heard they picked the best of the available spots. It was winter, and the ground was firmly frozen so it was hard to dig a hole. People usually use a truck or a cart to carry the coffin. In our case, we used a truck. In North Korea, no one owns their own vehicles, so our family went to the truck factory and begged to the manager there to rent us one. Of course, we paid for the rental, gas, and also for the driver. My aunt said it would take more than a year to pay back the debt she took on for the funeral. My father offered to pay half, and I remember our family’s lives getting harder for a while after that.
“My aunt said it would take more than a year to pay back the debt she took on for the funeral”
My family was never rich but could live on corn soup or rice. We could only just afford the funeral expenses, but there are many people to whom even this simplest farewell is an unattainable luxury. They keep the ceremony to only family, set the table with a freshly cooked bowl of rice, then transport the coffin in a cart to the mountain, where they bury it with no one’s help. Thinking of that, it’s not only the living in North Korea who are pitiful, the dead are, too.
Will I see my grandma when I go to heaven? It still breaks my heart that I had to bury her in thin summer clothes, but I hope she is now enjoying all the luxury in heaven that she couldn’t even dream of while she was alive.
My grandmother always told me she would to live into her 80s, so that she could see me get married and have kids. She was only 61 years old when she died. In North Korea, when you enter your 60s, people think you have lived the natural span of your life. It makes me sad to think of people dying in their 60s as something normal. I can’t help thinking that if my grandmother had been in South Korea, she would have lived longer.
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Editing and translation by Ashley Cho
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld