four scenes

The husband, a grandfather in his 90s, greets each family member with tears in his eyes. He does not sob, nor wail, nor does anyone today; but I’ve never seen such sorrow (come from such joy) expressed with his magnitude of dignity.

The man who came last night (drunk) to the Dharma Hall is standing outside the door again this morning. He holds some leafy branch in his arms and, once he catches my eye, makes vague gestures and mouths something. I can’t understand. I cross over to him, and the sickly-sweet smell of soju still clinging to him makes me want to pull back. I don’t. I lean in. What did you come to do? I ask, my Korean suddenly awkward as I shift into a foreigner’s blunt literalism. He holds out the branch, which I can see now has unopened buds of some kind, wrapped tight like pearls in green flesh, among the glossy arrow-shaped leaves, and half-whispers, half-mouths, This is for the departed… His eyes are desperate, sad, but despite the stink of alcohol all over him, he does not seem terribly drunk. I show him in. He places the greenery on the memorial altar. I tell him to make three bows. He does, then sits at the back of the hall, apart from the family. No one knows who he is.

A young woman, one of the granddaughters perhaps, keeps her headphones in during the entire two-hour ceremony. The mourning party is in black: the white vines of her earbuds are obvious against the ink stain of her clothes. She does not cry. She seems agitated when she stands; or maybe she’s just moving to the music in her ears? I resist the urge to go over and tell her to take those things out, show some respect. I am surprised at myself. Two or three years ago, I wouldn’t have felt such a tiredness, or a sense of age, looking at a girl like her. I feel older, old enough to demand without irony some decorum from a kid with orange hair and an attitude. Some of the mothers, holding toddlers on their laps, look younger than I.

The ceremony is over. The pyramids of fruit, the cylinders of candy and crackers, the rice cake, the soup and vegetable dishes, the cups of tea, the rice, even the picture and paper name-plaque: all taken down. From the burning of the funeral clothes and paper money outside, flakes of ash the size of a child’s hand are still riding the drafts up, and down.


4 comments on “four scenes

  1. “I resist the urge to go over and tell her to take those things out, show some respect.”

    Nunnish mileage may vary. I used to teach at a Catholic high school where the nuns would never have resisted that urge.

    • seon joon says:

      *Grin* Part of it is that I’m the youngest of a family of nuns, and you know how Koreans value hierarchy. In a Western situation, maybe I could have done so; but here, if the senior Korean nuns aren’t fussed, then it’s best for me to follow their example and keep quiet. Not that it’s always easy, but I’m sensitive to both rank and cultural differences in situations like this. So far, I’ve need made a mistake by waiting to see what will happen, while I’ve made more than a few by rushing in to “correct” something I found offensive or questionable without checking in first with the community.

  2. Argh; wordpress just ate my comment! The gist of it was that I am moved by this post — the widower, the drunk man (and you resisting your desire to pull away), the girl with the earbuds, the details of the funeral (so foreign to me) and the grief (so familiar.)

    • seon joon says:

      Dear Reb Rachel,
      At the rate WP is eating (or letting fly) your comments, I think it must like them as much as I do!

      Clergy, with their “insider’s view” of the preparation and performance of life-cycle ceremonies, are still a part of the grieving process a family goes through. I’m glad this resonated with you; I would be really interested to hear your experiences, since part of what I struggle with in my situation is the culture gap that is everywhere so evident, and at times both difficult and wonderful.

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