By Yang Sung-jin
Last week an anonymous caller demanded 800 million won in ransom from Lotte Group chairman Shin Kyuk-ho after illegally exhuming the remains of the business tycoon’s father. The tomb in Shin’s native village in hilly Ulchu county, Ulsan, was found robbed, with the coffin ripped open and the remains decapitated.
The crime came as a head-slamming shock for Koreans, who are known for strong ancestor-worshipping tradition. In a nation where people still view the proper burial of ancestors as a central filial duty, the unidentified caller’s act was deemed more than dehumanizing.
In the Choson Annals, incidents hinting at ancestor-worshipping tradition are virtually countless. Notably, a number of articles testify to the historical fact that the proper burial of one’s ancestors and the observation of the three-year-long mourning period were considered an essential duty of an offspring.
For instance, Kim Chok-son, a ranking diplomat, encountered a storm on his way to Ming China as a member of the Choson delegation and was drowned to death in November of 1396.
When the tragic accident was known to the Choson court, officials called on King Taejo to send Kim’s son, Cha-ku, to the site where his father was shipwrecked in a bid to find the remains for a burial in his hometown.
The king ordered an interpreter to accompany and assist Kim Cha-ku who set out to find his father’s remains in China, a showcase of the social consensus that the proper burial of ancestor’s remains carried prime importance.
On Nov. 7 of 1420, the Ministry of Rites filed a lengthy appeal with King Sejong, touching on various social practices which included the burial and funeral.
The document stressed the burial of ancestors while sharply criticizing cremation, a practice which gained temporary popularity in Ming China due to the influence of Buddhism: “Those who uphold cremation say that it is the only way to go to the heaven, which is indeed unwise. Whether alive or dead, whether it’s human or ghost, the fundamental is the same. If grandparents are comfortable in the tombs, their offspring also enjoy prosperity. Human life is like a tree whose roots depend on the ground. No tree can survive if its roots are set afire.”
The Choson government, which promoted ancestor-worshipping as a cornerstone of Confucianism, regularly updated the exemplary cases of dutiful sons and daughters who observed the mourning period and took care of the tombs of their parents.
In February of 1413, Chungchong-do and Kyongsang-do governors reported exemplary cases of dutiful sons and daughters to King Taejong. Amongst them is Pyon Chong-saeng, who lost her mother at the mere age of 13, stood vigilantly in front of the tomb for three years. As soon as the mourning period for her deceased mother ended, her father also died and Pyon faithfully performed her duty.
A daughter-in-law whose family name was Son, lost her husband before she was 30 but faithfully remained single thereafter. When her mother-in-law died, Son took care of the tomb for three years, which drew public esteem.
In the same report, there was a case illustrating that the Choson people waited at least three days before undertaking the burial ceremony since it was widely believed that the dead might revive within the three-day time frame after death. Lee Kang, who lived in the city of Pungsan, slipped off a horse and died on the road. His wife, known by the family name of Kim, embraced the corpse of her husband for three days, praying for his revival but only to confirm his death. Grief-stricken, Kim skipped meals for over a month and died of despair. Her parents buried the couple in a cave, sympathizing with their ill-fated love.
Kim Cha-kang, who lived in Songju, lost his father at age three. When his mother also died, Kim buried his parents in the same tomb and took care of it for three years, refusing to put on shoes as an expression of his grief. Even after the mourning period, Kim stayed at the tomb for his deceased father to observe another three-year mourning.
3-Year Mourning Period
In a report dated 1415, the Kyongsang-do governor detailed a host of cases in which sons and daughters faithfully performed their filial duty related to the burial of their parents.
A 13-year-old boy named Sang Cha in the city of Yonghae had his mother died of a contagious disease. When townspeople dug up the ground at a hill for the burial, a stream of water was found. People tried to clear the water and bury Sang’s mother at the site, but Sang deeply lamented the ominous sign, asking for another burial site. Yet people thought it time-consuming and returned home, leaving behind Sang who sat up all night alongside his deceased mother. Moved by Sang’s faithful act, people buried his mother in a safe tombsite the next day.
In January of 1420, the year when King Sejong ascended to the throne, hundreds of sons and daughters were recommended as exemplary cases of those who observed their filial duty.
King Sejong ordered officials to select the most prominent cases, which numbered at 41. Interestingly, most cases include the passage in which the person in question stayed near the tomb of his or her deceased parents, mourning the death as the greatest loss of their life.
Thanks to the vigorous and systematic support of the central government for those who led a filial life, those who violated the unwritten rule of the mourning and proper burial were severely punished by the community, or sometimes by the government.
On Dec. 28 of 1413, King Taejong was debriefed on a former public official named Kim Ong: “Kim Ong did little to rescue the corpse of his father in the blaze and, worse, delayed the burial for three years. Therefore, Kim committed an inhuman act, which deserves a severe punishment according to the related laws.”
During the Choson Kingdom, those found guilty of high treason after their deaths were decapitated after being pulled out of their tombs in a bid to show their horrid crimes to the public — the harshest punishment imaginable in the mindset of Choson people.
On Sunday, police announced the arrest of one of the two suspects involving the grave robbery of Lotte Group chairman’s deceased father. Needless to say, the horrendous criminals should pay the price for wicked and vicious abuse of the nation’s time-honored tradition — filial piety.