My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing what an incense signifies in ancestral rites. She is identified as K and this piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.
K : You know what incense is, right? It’s a stick you light it on fire like a candle and it produces smoke with a certain smell to it. Rather than smelling like something burning, it has a very organic smell to it. Maybe like burning wood. In Korean ancestral rites, burning an incense means that the person who burned the incense is calling the Gods and their ancestors from the sky. The smoke rises from the ground and when it reaches the sky, the God or the ancestor will know someone is calling them. If someone is only wishing for something, it is calling God to grant their dear wish. If someone is performing an ancestral rite, it means that they are calling their ancestors.
In our family, we burn incenses more than candles. Before listening to the meaning behind burning incenses, I only thought we do this for the smell of it or as a tradition; I was surprised that the smoke and the smell of the incense was meant to reach the sky. I think this aspect of burning incenses show the earnest wish of the user to see and meet the holistic figures. It should also be noted that not all incenses are meant for deep meanings like calling their God or ancestors, but a lot of people use it for its good smell.