In the old days when social classes were strictly divided, commoners had only two occasions in life when they could dress up in all finery and enjoy special treatment. One is when they get married and the other is when they leave this earth. At a wedding, the bridegroom puts on an outfit usually reserved for government officials and the bride a dress worn by court ladies. At weddings Koreans were allowed to forget about their status at birth and wish for a happy married life. When the time comes for them to leave this world, the coffin is put in a bier decorated with flowers and colorful fabrics. The big hearse is carried on the shoulders of ten men. Ordinary people, who could never ride in a sedan chair while alive, got to ride in one, and a fancy one at that, after death. This practice must have stemmed from the living people’s consideration that the dead would have a comfortable trip to the netherworld. People used to sing a song while carrying the bier on their shoulders to make the work a little more bearable for the pallbearers as well as to celebrate the deceased’s trip to the better place and console the grieving family. Today’s episode will begin with “Kkotyeombulsori,” loosely translated into “flowery Buddhist chant song,” one of the funeral songs from the Jeju region. Lee Myeong-suk and the chorus perform the song.
Kkotyeombulsori/ Sung by Lee Myeong-suk
This song wasn’t actually sung when the coffin was carried out. It was performed when a young person or someone who made great contributions to his or her community passed away. On the eve of the funeral, people would sing this song while carrying an empty coffin and traveling around the village. This custom of parading around with an empty coffin was observed not only in Jeju-do Province but in other parts of the country. It was sort of a rehearsal for the real funeral because pallbearers who were not familiar with the procedure could make mistakes. This practice was also one way to comfort the bereaved family and guests who came to pay their condolences. Now let’s listen to a song that was for the real funeral procession. This dirge from the Goyang area of Gyeonggi-do Province goes something like this.
When are you coming back when you leave us now?
You are leaving with no promise of return.
Old people used to say that the way to the world beyond was long.
But the netherworld lies right outside the door,
And the burial ground is in the mountain right in front.
Here’s Choi Jang-gyu and the Goyang Deulsori Preservation Society singing the Goyang area’s funeral dirge.
Funeral Dirge/ Sung by Choi Jang-gyu and the Goyang Deulsori Preservation Society
The words to the funeral songs largely have to do with comforting the dead and wishing them a good afterlife. But the song also includes some advice to the living. We often live our lives as if death is far away but as the lyrics “the netherworld lies right outside the door” implies, death is always lurking near us. There is no coming back from the beyond, so we should cherish the time we have on this earth and do our best to live our lives to the fullest. We should work hard, play hard and treat others with kindness. Together with such a song, a coffin is carried around the village one last time before leaving for the burial ground. This entire process teaches children and young people still unfamiliar with death how to understand and accept death as part of life. Once the funeral is over, the family left behind has no way of knowing whether their loved one has arrived in heaven, so they hire shamans to perform a ritual to ask Princess Bari, the guide to the netherworld, to show the way to the dead. To the Koreans of the old, the actual existence of such a being was not important. Just believing that there was a being like Princess Bari to look after their loved ones after death was enough to make them feel relieved. Let’s wrap up this week’s episode with “Bari Sinawi” inspired by the tale of Princess Bari and performed by Korean music ensemble Baramgot.
Bari Sinawi/ Performed by Baramgot