Korean Ancestral Commemoration Rites

--Informant Info--
Nationality: South Korean
Age: 67
Occupation: NA
Residence: Chicago, Illinois
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/30/21
Primary Language: Korean
Other Language(s): English

Main Performance:

The jesa (제사) is traditional Korean ceremony that honors the family’s ancestors as well as deceased family members, particularly parents. It is a fairly large event that involves the extended family of the deceased parent to gather at the house of the eldest child, prepare food, and engage in a ceremony with specific steps. It is celebrated on different days for every family because it held on the day before the death of the deceased persons being honored. Back in Korea we’d have your uncles and aunts show up to commemorate your grandparents but we’re the only ones here in America so your mother doesn’t get as much help as she usually does. Even when if this isn’t even technically her own family that she’s making offerings for, she’s still the the only person who puts in this much effort. You also remember the steps better than I do these days.

The steps are as follows:

  1. The spirits of those who are to be honored are welcomed by an open door.
  2. The spirits are seated at the table before everyone else with food already prepared for them. The spirits are represented by a wooden plaque adorned with a photograph of themselves.
  3. An incense placed upon a bowl of uncooked rice is prepared between two lit candles and the eldest son of the spirits and their siblings or children pour glasses of rice or plum wine.
  4. Wine is poured three times until the cup is full and the cups are then rotated around the smoking incense three times, clockwise.
  5. The cups are placed by the bowls of the spirits and the ones who immediately poured and placed the drinks bow to the spirits. Men do two large bows and one half-bow while women do four half-bows.
  6. The above is repeated by the number of children of the deceased are present.
  7. Once the above step is completed, the spirits’ utensils are placed onto their favorites among the prepared food and the rest of the attendees excuse themselves to another room so the spirits may enjoy their meal alone.
  8. For a couple minutes, the gathered family engage in small talk, reminisce, and exchange pleasantries for a couple minutes before returning to the dining area.
  9. Steps 4 and 5 are repeated one last time and the spirits are led out to an open door and now the family is allowed to eat properly.
  10. The bowls that contained the rice and soup that the spirits would have eaten are considered to be blessed and are offered to those who need the ancestor’s blessings the most.

Background:

The informant is my father who has engaged in this ceremony longer than I have been alive. As he is the oldest among his three siblings, our house was where my father’s side of the family used to convene and celebrate together with as per tradition dictates that the eldest son continues the tradition. My father mentions how my mother has been diligent in her work to continue this tradition as she used to get help from my aunts in preparing the food but now she does all of the work alone for a ceremony honoring my father’s parents instead of any on her own side. Recently my mother receives help from my grandmother but since she is not directly related to my father’s parents, she does not partake in the ritual itself.

Context:

Every October 10th and November 30th, by Lunar Calendar dates, my family engages in these rituals and I’ve asked my father and mother many times about the procedure. Before long I was the one who remembered most of the steps.

My Thoughts:

Despite only having met my paternal grandparents only once or twice before their passing, this ceremony is something that has been ingrained in my life for as long as I could remember. The eldest son’s home becomes the liminal ground where the living descendants commune with the spirits of the deceased. Looking up articles of the ritual now, it appears that me and my family are skipping a number of steps but the way we’ve done it is how it has been for at least 30+ years. I always used to watch my father and my uncles do the steps back in Korea but after coming to the States, I began to take their place in placing offerings to my grandparents. The dates however do make it a pain for my mother who has to prepare not only for American Thanksgiving but also for preparing for my grandfather’s jesa. My parents often joke about how no other Korean family engages in this practice anymore and it made me recently realize that my parents being vaguely irreligious is probably the reason why. Many other Korean families are heavily Christian and have since abandoned the traditional ways which almost makes me a bit sad with how Westernization has started to blot out Korean culture.