The 49th-day ceremony (사십구재) for Sena Lee, who died in Seoul on 22 April 2014, held at Anjeoksa, Sancheon-gun, at which family and friends said farewell to her.
Traditionally, the period of 49 days after someone dies is seen as a time for that person to check their consciousness and digest their karma. According to Buddhist teaching the bodhisattva Ji Jang Bosal helps the deceased during these 49 days to perceive their karma so when they return they are reborn to help this world, rather than continue in the cycle of birth and death.
Suseonsa, Sancheong-gun, Sunday 8 June 2014, 7am. The night in the temple’s guest accommodation had been hot and sticky, and I hadn’t slept much. It seemed to be a bit cooler this morning but the atmosphere was heavy and there was the threat of heavy heat and humidity later on. I took a quick shower, using a dirty shirt as a towel. In a Korean pension you need to bring everything yourself and I was unprepared.
I put on my black funeral suit and strolled down the hill to where I could get a mobile phone signal, intending to ask my friend Kyung-sook to throw a towel into the car today so that I could get properly dry after the evening’s shower. As soon as I got a signal, the phone rang. It was Kyung-sook.
There had been a diplomatic incident. After our dinner the previous evening her teacher had gone home and mentioned to his wife who it was he’d had dinner with. His wife had immediately picked up the phone and demanded to know of Kyung-sook why I wasn’t staying in their house. Kyung-sook had said she didn’t want to cause them any trouble, but her teacher’s wife would not hear of it. There was no choice. I had to check out of the temple and stay the next night with them in their lovely traditional-style house (which, I remembered from past experience, had a superabundance of towels in the guest bathroom).
I returned to my room to pack my bags, and Kyung-sook’s car was soon seen climbing the hill to the temple. I slip into the back seat where I can look after the large pots of funeral orchids, which have yet to be delivered to the temple. We drive to a convenient rendez-vous where we have arranged to meet Eunjeong and Tim, who had been friends of Sena in London and who now live an hour or so’s drive away in Gwangyang. We continue to the temple in convoy, carefully picking our way round the agricultural vehicles that obstruct our way on the narrow, winding lane.
We arrive at Anjeoksa, a small temple often visited by Sena’s family. Kyung-sook takes the pots of orchids into the main shrine, and the rest of us are ushered into the abbot’s room for some tea, fruit and rice cakes. It is around 9:30am, and the four of us are joined briefly by Sena’s mother and uncle. It is a sombre occasion. Soon after Sena’s passing, her mother had shaved her head “so I could focus on Sena”, covering her baldness with a headscarf. I handed over to her the book of condolence that I had assembled, which contained messages from people who had known Sena in London and some photographs of her which her family were unlikely to have seen before.
In the Korean and Chinese tradition, a memorial ceremony is held seven days after death, and thereafter weekly for seven weeks. The final ceremony is known as the 49th-day ceremony, and is the most significant of them all.
The ceremony is due to start at 10am, and Sena’s immediate family head off to the main shrine building, but there seems to be no hurry for the rest of us, and we continue to sip our tea and chew on the rice cakes. Kyung-sook decides that I should say a few words at the ceremony. Fortunately, the only people who speak English at the temple are the four of us plus Sena’s sister, so a long speech is not called for. What I say does not particularly matter. What is important for the family is that I am there, representing Sena’s friends and academic colleagues in London, where she spent three of the last four years of her life.
We enter the shrine at 10:30, and the ceremony is in full swing. The main altar is splendidly decorated with fruits and the orchids we had brought from Busan. But more importantly was the altar on the side wall to the left of the main altar: an altar overflowing with fruits and rice cakes, above which was a funereal photograph of the deceased. I wanted to take a photograph of it all, but felt that it would not be appropriate.
Friends and family were seated on cushions, with immediate family closest to Sena’s altar. In the centre of the room were the officiating monks: from Anjeoksa, from Suseonsa where I had stayed the previous night, and also the abbot of Beopgyesa, where Sena’s mother still stays once a month on her regular visits to Cheonwangbong, Jirisan’s highest peak.
There is just enough space for us at the back of the room, and we sit listening to the chanting, trying to follow the words in the service booklets. I gradually get used to reading in columns, top to bottom, then right to left, but the syllables fly by too fast for me.
We are seated facing the main altar, but soon we come to a significant point in the ceremony where we turn to face Sena’s altar. Each member of the congregation is invited to approach the altar, in pairs, pour a drink offering to Sena and then bow three times to her funeral portrait, then three times to the monks. Some of them put a folded piece of paper on the altar containing a private prayer for the deceased. My turn comes, and Kyung-sook joins me, showing me what to do.
The monks then invite me to say a few words, and I summarise Sena’s life in London, her contribution to the promotion of Traditional Korean Medicine there, and I read a few words from the messages of condolence that I had gathered from her friends and colleagues in London. Some of her friends had contributed messages in Korean. Kyung-sook read one or two of those. There was one particularly moving one from a close colleague in the academic world of Korean Traditional Medicine who regarded Sena as an elder sister and mentor. In his message, he addressed Sena as sonsaengnim. The word brought home to everyone present what a bright future Sena had had, and how tragically early she had been taken from us. As Kyung-sook read the words, there was a momentary choke in her voice, and you could hear all the guests stifling a sob.
We placed the book of condolence on Sena’s altar and returned to our cushions. The service was soon over, finishing with a procession of the mourners to a small furnace outside the temple where Sena’s funeral photograph, a small bundle of some of her personal effects, and the prayers written on paper by the guests, were to be incinerated. Sena was finally free of this world, and on her way to the next.
Funerals are often surprisingly happy occasions, an opportunity for family members and friends to get together and catch up with each other – and almost as a secondary objective the long life of the deceased is remembered and celebrated. Sena’s funeral was different: we were there to lament a life cut short and to support her family.
The lunch at the temple, delicious as it was, was a subdued affair. But towards the end, Sena’s mother approached us and invited the four of us to dinner that evening. This required a bit of reorganising of Tim and Eunjeong’s baby-sitting arrangements, but Eunjeong’s brother was pressed further into service, and so we now had an afternoon together.
Eunjeong, having studied art history at the Sotheby Institute in London, was keen first of all to visit Min Young-ki’s studio and see some of his work. She had a special interest in ceramics, and the previous year had visited the studio of a distant relation of mine down in the West of England, who is a reasonably well-known ceramicist.
We return to Min Young-ki’s studio for Eunjeong to take a look round and visit the master. Once again, Min’s wife is pressed into service making green tea in his tea bowls. After tea, there is time for some sight-seeing before dinner, and Mr Min’s wife joins us on our travels.
We visit the tomb of the last King of Gaya, where we seem to be blessed with good luck, finding a clump of clover with four and even five leaves. I take on the mantle of tour guide for Tim, but struggle to remember everything that I had been told four year’s previously on my first visit to Sancheong. We drive off to the Donguibogam Village, site of last year’s Expo, for a quick look round. Tim is a bit of a sceptic when it comes to the power of gi, but I try out the bi-digital O-ring test, trying to prise apart his thumb and index finger before and after an infusion of energy from the turtle rock, and he is prepared to set aside some of his disbelief.
Now I am on the familiar territory of the Expo, I am fluent in my explanations to Tim of the various stories connected with Heo Jun and the Donguibogam and we walk down the hill, massaging our feet on the trail.
Dinner is at the special restaurant adjacent to the Turtle Rock, where I say my farewells to Sena’s mother for this year. The food is predominantly of medicinal herbs, but for the carnivores there was some pork belly:
I return to Min Young-ki’s house, take a sleeping pill, and crash out in their guest room.
- Anjeoksa map (경상남도 산청군 신안면 갈전리 311)