Preparing Food for Ancestral Rites

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Korean
Age: 50
Occupation: Professor
Residence: South Korea
Date of Performance/Collection: April 25th, 2020
Primary Language: Korean
Other Language(s):

Context :

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 how to prepare the table for ancestral rite, which is different from regular meal table rites. She is identified as K, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

K : As far as I know, the ancestral rite table is related to the belief in geomancy. To start off, the table must be facing the North side. 

E : Is there a reason why it must be facing the North side?

K : Yes. Ancestral rite day is considered as a ‘mini-day of the dead event’ and it is believed that all spirits come from the North side. So if you don’t have the table that way, it means that you’re not welcoming them. 

E : I see.

K : Other rules that need to be kept are related to this. Since the spirits will be coming from that side, all food and utensils must be prepared on the opposite side of us, so that the spirits can eat while we face them. 

E : So you’re putting utensils as if someone is sitting across from you?

K : Yes. You also need to put the rice on your, the person who is holding the ancestral rite, right and the soup on your left so that the spirits will have rice on their left and the soup on their right. Koreans have a ‘tacit agreement’ that warmer foods are supposed to be placed on the right side. 

She ended her description by noting how all families tend to have different styles of how they perform ancestral rites and that her description is just the basics; some families might not care what side their table is facing and some families might not even perform the rite at all. 

Analysis :

I live in a family who doesn’t perform ancestral rites as often and I found this piece very interesting. I’ve only attended ancestral rites twice or thrice when I was very young and didn’t know the details to it. The belief that the dead spirits of our ancestors return to have a quick meal that their descendents have prepared reflects the strong Confucianist belief of Korean societies; Korean descendents and the younger generations are expected to respect and take care of the older generations and even after they have passed away too. However, a lot of Korean families quitting to do annual ancestral rites also show that the new generations are walking away from Confucianist traditions that have been taking a spot in the Korean society for centuries.