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 Espen Arnesen in Kyoto asks:
Where are people in North Korea buried? What do people do when their loved ones die?
I know there are many funeral halls in South Korea. But there were none in my hometown in North Korea. I don’t know if such funeral halls existed in other regions of North Korea, but I know we usually held funerals at the homes of the dead. Without any funeral halls in business, people had to have their funerals at home.
Now, before I go on, let me point out that I’m not and never have been a mortician. So, I don’t know every detail about the exact process of funerals in North Korea.
But I do know that the funeral process takes three days, and the very first thing they do is clog the ears and noses of the dead person with wads of cotton. I have heard that the reason why they do this to prevent water from leaking out. And they fill the dead person’s mouth with raw rice – this is supposed to be the dead person’s food when they get to the afterlife. After that, they dress the dead body up with clean clothes. They make sure that these are made of cotton, because they think cotton is most suitable when the dead body begins to decompose.
BACK TO LIFE!
After clogging the holes with wads of cotton and raw rice, people place the body on the lid of the coffin and leave a piece of white cloth over the body. For the next three days, people who used to know the dead person come by to pay tributes while the family members of the deceased stay beside the dead body. As far as I know, they spend three days like this before the burial because they hold on to the hope that the deceased could be revived. That’s why people leave the dead body over the lid of the coffin. If the dead person suddenly revives, they would fall off the coffin and the family members would notice it immediately. I have heard that in North Korea many people have come alive during this three-day period. However, if the revival does not happen during those three days, people decide that the person is dead for good.
When they came close to take a look at her, she was awake
One distant relative of mine had an aunt. One day, she seemingly passed away after having suffered from a chronic disease for some time. In the middle of the funeral process her two hands, which had been placed on her stomach, dropped down to the floor all of a sudden. At that moment, people were shocked but they wanted to hold on to the last bit of hope. When they came close to take a look at her, she was awake.
After she regained consciousness, this she told her family: “I had a dream. In my dream, I was standing right in front of God. When he asked for my name, I gave it to him. He told me, ‘You are not supposed to be here yet. Come back again when it is time for you to be here.’”
Much to our surprise, the aunt passed away exactly at the time she was told by God to come back.
ASHES TO ASHES
Resuscitation must happen from time to time, because people take three days to hold a funeral and make sure the deceased is gone for good. If the deceased does not revive over that three-day period, people either bury or cremate them. Cremation is a fairly new trend in North Korea. People only began to practice cremation in the 2000s. This new trend has yet to make its way to regions outside Pyongyang; it is uncommon to witness cremation in other regions yet.
I have heard that people in Pyongyang often choose to cremate the dead, but in my hometown we were more accustomed to burying them. Nearby mountains were our favorite places to bury the deceased. We visited them to hold memorial services at their tomb on Chuseok. Of course, people hold such memorial rites on their birthdays but usually at home. And some people hold the traditional three-year mourning periods at homes.
The North Korean government doesn’t officially allow this but people still seek to meet fortunetellers secretly
But it is at Chuseok when people visit the tomb to hold memorial services, mow the grass and weed around the grave. Everyone in the family makes sure to be present to hold these memorial rites at the grave on Chuseok. This originates from a superstition North Koreans believe in: that our ancestors will punish you unless you hold proper memorial services for them. Because of that superstition, people who were not the best children to their parents while they were alive do their best to hold proper memorial services for their dead parents out of belief that doing so will bring good luck.
FINAL RESTING PLACE?
Lately, people have begun to cremate the deceased and keep the ashes, which is rapidly becoming a new custom in North Korea. It’s an easier way to keep the remains, and be able to continue paying respects to them, than what you have to do if they’re buried and you have to move.
Some people have to move the graves of their dead parents when they have to relocate to other towns so that they can continue to hold memorial services at their graves every Chuseok. Some other people move the graves when they feel that things don’t work out well because the dead ancestors have been buried in ominous places. They believe that circumstances will improve if they move the graves to better places for their dead ancestors. North Korea doesn’t have an official religion, but ordinary people strongly believe in superstition. The North Korean government doesn’t officially allow this but people still seek to meet fortunetellers secretly. When your fortuneteller tells you that things aren’t going your way because your dead ancestors have been buried in ominous places, you’ll want to move the dead body to a different spot.
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Editing and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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