Tag Archives: funeral traditions

Korean Chopstick Etiquette

The informant (J) is the son of two Korean immigrants. He moved to a city on the west coast when he was two years old and grew up there, but he was born in Korea and spent many summers there with his family.

J: When you eat rice or something you’re not supposed to stab your fork or chopsticks into the rice because it’s the symbol of like…you’re killing someone.

Me: Like it resembles the motion of stabbing someone?

J: Or no like, it’s…an incense funeral thing. Cause at a funeral you have an incense candle thing that you stick into this bowl and it sticks out and you light it

Me: Why do you do that at funerals?

J: I think it’s just to like…honor the dead I guess.

Me: Where’d you learn about the chopstick thing and the incense?

J: Um… I think my parents probably just told me not to like…stick my chopsticks into my food like when I was younger. I went to Korean school when I was a kid too and I’m pretty sure they told us about funerals

Context: This was told to me while we were in the living room of the informant’s apartment.

Washing One’s Hands After a Funeral

Main piece: There’s a tradition of washing your hands after a funeral so you don’t bring death into the house. If you’ve been near a dead body, you want to get the death off your hands. You don’t want to bring death into your house. Even after my dad’s funeral, friends of my mother, who had stayed back to help with the catering and the flowers, they put a pitcher outside. I was impressed by all that actually. It’s what you do. Some cemeteries have a water fountain. Outside Jewish funeral homes there’s a place to wash your hands. 

Background: My informant is a 51 year-old Jewish woman. The majority of the funerals she has attended have been in Jewish cemeteries with Jewish burial practices. She doesn’t remember where she learned the practice exactly, but she recalls vividly seeing the pitcher of water outside a Jewish funeral home at her aunt’s funeral when she was fourteen. The logic makes sense to her, and she has partaken in this ritual many times before. 

Context: I was talking to my informant about Jewish traditions, and this was the first one that occurred to her. 

Analysis: This practice makes a lot of sense. A funeral is a liminal space, as it is the final celebration of the life of someone who is now deceased. With that comes a lot of uncertainty, and fear that death can come for anyone else next. By washing your hands before entering a home, you don’t cross the doorway between a graveyard or a cemetery – a place of death, and your house – a place where you live/where life happens. This also promotes the idea that death can linger/cling to a live person, and having a ritualistic cleansing of death from your hands encourages a sense of protection, and that it won’t come for you next. 

Shaving a Path to the Future- Congolese Funeral Tradition

Context: This is a tradition that takes place when a Congolese woman’s husband passes away. My informant [OD] learned of this tradition from her dad and witnessed it occur when her uncle passed away.

  • What occurs?
    • When her uncle died, her cousin[his daughter] and aunt[his wife] shaved their heads as a means of honoring him and paying their respects. 
  • What was her opinion?
    • OD thought the tradition was very symbolic and powerful. By shaving their heads, her aunt and cousin marked a new phase in the life of their family. In addition, OD believed that it was valuable to maintain these traditions as Congolese Americans. Given the fact that they were in another country, maintaining these traditions was very important to her and those within her community.
  • Thoughts: After listening to OD’s explanation of this Congolese tradition, I agreed with the aspects of maintaining tradition as I am Nigerian American myself. Shaving one’s head to honor the life of a loved one may be viewed as very extreme from an outside lens, but because I have witnessed similar acts it was not that odd or strange to me. When my grandfather passed away, my parents flew back to Nigeria to attend his funeral. From my mom’s accounts, because of my grandfather’s status within his community, it was a tradition that all of the members of his family[wife, children, inlaws] dressed like him to both honor and emulate his spirit. This was a really powerful and symbolic gesture similar to OD’s tradition, it marked a new phase in my family’s life. While my grandfather had passed on, his spirit and legacy would live on in the members of his family. While it’s difficult to maintain traditions away from home[Nigeria or the Congo], in both cases, it is important to preserve them because they have such important value and continue to teach those who practice them more about themselves and where they come from. Traditions are important to me and I am inspired by the powerful meanings behind simple acts as shaving one’s head and even dressing like a deceased loved one. These traditions take on new subjective meanings to the families and communities that practice them and continue to preserve the connections between them and their respective cultures.

The Bot Chon Ghost Story

Informant Background: The informant is a student in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Indonesia. His parents moved to the United States and they now live in New Orleans. He speaks only English but he said his family still practice many Indonesian traditions especially folk-beliefs. He travels back once in a while to Indonesia to visit his relatives.

 

This is a story of a famous Indonesian ghost called Bot-Chon. In Indonesia when someone die you would wrap them with cloth. Before the burial the cloth is tied around the body. Once in the grave the body is covered with planks of woods. Soil is then put into the cloth to symbolizing the body going back into the earth, or like the body going back nature. Before the body is buried the cloth you are supposed to untie the cloth so the cloth kind of sit loose in the grave so the spirit can flow out after the burial. The ghost is then from people who forgot to untie the ghost…you know it’s like their spirit is trapped inside the cloth…So the ghost will haunt the family and friend until the cloth can be untied. It is kind of funny because  the cloth is tied around the body so this ghost just kind of hop around like a statue.

The informant learned about this tradition when he visits his family back in Indonesia. The untying of the cloth also is a way family and relatives can have the final moment of closure with the deceased. To not untie the cloth represents how the living family did not have a proper farewell moment. The ghost haunts as a way to seek their last goodbyes. To get rid of the ghost is to go back to the original burial site and untie the cloth to release the spirit.

 

 

I agree that the appearance of the spirit has a humorous quality. Since the body is wrapped in cloth the spirit would appear almost as a mummy who could not walk. I think this ghost story shows the importance of funeral as a life event. Funeral is one of the biggest life event that is ritualized and celebrated. In this case the mistake or neglect at the funeral turns the person into a ghost, similar to a lot of ghost stories where ghosts are lingering spirits or souls that did not get proper burial tradition after death. Ghost in many culture are result of a bad funeral; ones that neglect the traditions or did not follow the rules. This case is the same how the ghost is the spirit asking to be released.

The burial and putting soil into the cloth is similar to Western funeral traditions where the family would through dirt on top of the coffin before the actual burial. It is only a symbolic gesture of the last goodbye and putting the body back to nature. Unlike western traditions this tradition from the informant does not put the body in the coffin. So the body will decompose with the soil, the wood planks, and the clothes, all into the ground.