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[Kim Myong-sik] Dealing humbly with our remains after death

Lawyer Kim Chang-kook, an old friend of mine, died of liver cancer last week. His body -- thinned by the long bout of illness -- was cremated, with the remains placed in an earthen jar that was buried under a pine tree.

He had caught hepatitis C many years ago and the disease had developed into liver cirrhosis, then to cancer. He had a liver transplant operation five years ago but the cancer had spread to his lung and other organs. Early last year, his doctor told him that he had 12 months to live.

Kim had a brilliant public career, first as a prosecutor and then as a human rights advocate. He served as president of the Korea Bar Association and cofounded the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a human rights civic group. Former President Kim Dae-jung named him the first chairman of the National Human Rights Commission. In his last public duty, Kim chaired a presidential committee to review the property acquired by pro-Japanese traitors.

In preparation for his death, he had bought a small patch of land on a hillside in Icheon, south of Seoul. He arranged for the tombs of his parents and grandparents to be exhumed and cremated their remains. Their ashes were then buried under trees in the new family gravesite. Kim’s ashes were laid to rest beside his ancestors’ under a tree, a practice that is called “sumokjang.” A little tag was attached to the tree trunk to mark the site.

Another college classmate Suh Jung-shin, former vice justice minister, also had his ashes buried under a tree after cremation last month. In accordance with his wishes, his friends and associates were not informed personally about his death. Instead his family ran a newspaper ad to let others know that his sumokjang had been held the day after his death. It was unusual that a man of the “leading class” in society chose to leave this world so quietly.

“Nature-friendly” sumokjang is being increasingly practiced these days. Some people, regardless of their religion, seem to like the idea of having their bodies -- created from dust -- return to dust in this rather direct manner.

Others choose to have their remains kept elsewhere.

Cremation ashes can also be kept at private charnel houses or at public cemeteries where there are spaces shared by family and clan members to contain jars.

Somang Presbyterian Church, which I attend, provides a unique communal graveyard for believers and their relatives. It is a gravel bed of about 30 square meters in the church’s retreat center in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province.

During burial ceremonies, families scatter the ashes of their loved ones over the gravel while attendees sing hymns.

The ashes of my mother, parents-in-law and older brother were strewn there. My wife and I have instructed our children to scatter our ashes over the communal grave when we die. They are thus relieved of the troubles and cost of preparing individual tombs for us as well as having to take care of them afterwards.

At Chuseok, the church holds joint memorial services at the retreat center for families who have had their ancestors “buried” this way.

There are those who have reservations about the communal grave, as they are reluctant to have the ashes of their loved ones mixed with those of others. I tell them that ashes are just ashes, not particularly different from the hair trimmings or fingernail clippings that are thrown away when we are still in the land of the living.

If you insist on placing importance on the ashes, isn’t it fine to have the remains of believers coexist in the gravesite as their souls do in heaven?

There is one problem with the communal grave though. The church’s congregation is around 50,000 people and there is a growing amount of cremated ashes being added to the grave. Each day at least a couple of liters of ashes are added, which results in a substantial amount being accumulated there each year. To make room for more remains, the retreat center staff have to transfer cremated ashes from the gravel bed to elsewhere in the hilly compound each year.

They mix the ashes with earth, and plant trees in a kind of sumokjang.

Despite the instructions to my children, I may still change my mind about what should be done with my remains. Along with many other senior members of the church, I am considering donating my body to a medical institute. The Somang elders’ group is holding a seminar on such donations next week to learn more about the process, including the required paperwork for donors and their family members. Another topic that will be discussed in the session will be how to obtain certification to refuse artificial prolonging of life in the event of terminal illnesses.

We know that medical colleges still experience a shortage of donated bodies although lately more people have been offering their bodies for research, education and organ transplants. They have had to depend mainly on unclaimed bodies from various circumstances, with the cooperation of the authorities, amid rumors about unethical means of securing cadavers. It is reportedly a common sight in medical institutes to have large numbers of students crowd around a single body during anatomy classes.

If we pledge to donate our bodies, we will have to keep in good shape while alive. It would be good if medical institutes routinely provide pledged donors with medical guidance to help them maintain good health until death. Donating our bodies is a noble sacrifice for no other reason than that it benefits people completely unknown to us. 

People live longer nowadays. Longevity, regarded as a blessing for millennia, can also be considered a cause of many social problems. The increasing number of elderly with declining economic capabilities already poses a growing burden to the younger, productive generation. Hence it is important for the elderly to minimize trouble for their families and society as a whole by simplifying the conventional practices carried out after their deaths.

The pace of life moves quicker these days, with fast communication and nearly everyone owning cell phones.

In a similar way, the traditions of three-day funerals and hand-delivered death notices should change to overnight rites, such as in the case of my dear friend Suh.

Funeral feasts are almost extinct now, so why can’t we do away with the thick guest books at funerals, elaborate floral wreaths and white condolence envelopes?

By Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.