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.