I came across your blog while doing a search for 제사 procedures. I can't seem to find anything in detail in English, and the Korean is way over my head. We are coming up on the 4th year since my mother passed. In the past, we have done the ceremony at a local temple that set everything up for us and we just paid and attended the ceremony. This year though, we have moved and there is no temple near us. I am thinking we are going to have to do it at home, but have no idea how or what I even need to do!
Any tips as far as food-wise, table settings, and anything else that we're supposed to do?
P.S. I am the only child - and a girl by the way. It would just be me and my husband doing the ceremony.
First off, a quick explanation on what jesa (제사) is -- jesa is a memorial ceremony for the dead. In fact, there are many different types of jesa, because technically it is a general term for memorial ceremonies of all types. The types include: myoje (묘제), held at the grave; sije (시제), held every season; charye (차례), held on major holidays like Lunar New Year's Day and Chuseok, etc. But currently when Korean people speak of jesa, they are mostly talking about gijesa (기제사) -- the kind held once a year, on the day the person passed away.
Jesa is very, very important in Korean culture. It is one of the few traditional ceremonies that Korean people still follow faithfully, often without regards to particular religion. For example, one of the reasons why Catholicism was able to make inroads with Korea faster than Protestantism is that Korean Catholics are allowed to hold jesa, per decree from Pope Pius XII in 1939. (Protestants of Korea held out longer -- while majority of Protestants in Korea do not hold jesa, a significant number still holds jesa or a modified form of one.) In fact, in a family life jesa is as important as a birthday. After all, it only makes sense that if there is a birthday, there also is a deathday.
The Korean will describe a model way of jesa below, be mindful that this ceremony is both highly adaptive and geography specific. Each family of different regions of Korea holds things with different food and different order. In fact, the Korean had to pause about whether this would be applicable to Alicia at all, because she mentioned that her jesa was held at a temple -- which could mean that her mother was a Buddhist, who have slightly different procedures. Also, because of the convenience of modern Koreans, certain things are abbreviated. But for the sake of everyone who might be interested in a model jesa, here is one model that is fairly common.
Logistics of Jesa
First of all, who is honored by jesa? As of today, the common practice is to hold jesa (i.e. gijesa, the "deathday") for up to your (paternal) grandparents. The ancestors beyond the grandparents level are honored through the other kinds of jesa, namely the ones held on major holidays, etc. If both of one's parents passed away, a single jesa is held for both of them together, on the jesa day of the father. (You will soon notice that much of this process is pretty sexist, but that's how traditions generally are.)
Who holds a jesa? The oldest male heir does. For a jesa for parents, the oldest male heir is the oldest son. For a jesa for grandparents, assuming there is no surviving male child of the grandparents, the oldest male heir is the oldest male child of the oldest male child of the grandparents. So for example, if the Korean Parents were to pass away, the Korean -- the oldest male child of the Korean Parents -- would hold the jesa for the Korean Parents. The Korean Grandfather has already passed away, and his jesa is held by one of the Korean Uncles, who is the oldest male child among the five that the Korean Grandfather had. If the Korean Uncle passes away, the grandfather-jesa duties would go to the oldest son of the Korean Uncle, i.e. the Korean Cousin. Just to trace back a little bit further, just for fun -- the Korean Grandfather was the last child among the three brothers, so the jesa for the Korean Great-Grandfather is held at the Korean Father's Cousin's house -- who is the oldest son of the Korean Grandfather's oldest brother.
Alicia's parents apparently passed away without a son, so technically her parents do not receive a jesa because only men are allowed to hold jesa. This is one of the major reasons why having a son in traditional Korea was such a huge deal. But in modern Korea, especially in cases when parents die without a son, daughters with their husbands hold jesa nonetheless.
When exactly is the date and the time of the jesa? The correct answer is "the earliest possible time on the day the person passed away," which means the midnight of the date of death. (A common threat in Korea is "Today is your jesa day," i.e. today is the day you die.) Practically, this means that people actually gather for jesa on the day before the date of death, so that jesa may begin exactly at 12 midnight of the next day. One tricky part is that because Korea traditionally has used a lunar calendar, jesa date is also traditionally determined by lunar calendar as well -- which means it changes from year to year on a solar calendar. But in modern Korea, following only the solar calendar is acceptable.
Be sure to be dressed properly. No need to go crazy with traditional garbs, but men generally wear a suit and women wear conservative dresses.
More after the jump.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Jesa Table
The jesa table filled with food is central to jesa, because ultimately jesa is a ceremony in which your ancestors visit to partake in the food you prepared. There are a number of different dishes that traditionally go on the table, and all of the dishes are placed in a certain order.
The above picture is a jesa table on a more elaborate side. (Imagine cooking all that stuff. In fact, the labor of preparing jesa food is one of the most common complaints by Korean women, and a big reason why oldest sons in Korea have a relatively harder time getting married.)
First of all, you might notice that all the dishes and plates are unusual. That is by design -- Koreans have a special set of lacquerwares or brasswares for jesa purposes. (Here is a website that displays all the proper lacquerwares.) The jesa set is common enough that you can purchase the entire set online in Korea, but the Korean has no clue how to get them in the U.S. A quick Google search reveals nothing, but there is one story in which a Korean American was holding a jesa without any special dishes and plates, except for the candle holders, liquor cup, spoon and chopsticks. (The link is worth clicking for the picture of their actual jesa table -- as you can see, it does not exactly match the sample picture above.)
The picture is from the perspective of the person who is about to take a bow toward the table. In other words, the dead ancestors would be sitting across the table. So the idea is that the core of the meal is closest to them, and it moves farther along outside.
The first row (from your perspective; the fifth row according to the numbering in the picture) is for fruits and desserts, i.e. the last part of the meal from the ancestor's perspective. Usually at least four fruits are served, in this order from left to right - dates (대추), chestnuts, pears/apples and persimmons. It is common to add a few more types of fruits, and they need not be traditional -- just something that the honored person used to like. It is not too strange to have bananas on the table if the deceased particularly liked bananas, for example, although bananas are anything but traditional to Korea. After the fruits, one can have traditional cookies and other desserts.
The second row is for light banchan (i.e. side dishes.) Usually this row involves some dried fish (usually cod, i.e. 북어) and different kinds of sautéed vegetables (나물). Kimchi could go here also. Salted or fermented fish products -- for example, salted brine shrimp (새우젓) could go here also. The dried cod and sauteed vegetables usually appear on every jesa table, but other banchan maybe switched around depending on the deceased's preference.
The third row is for soups. There are odd numbers of different kinds of soup -- in most cases three will do, but elaborate jesa involves five or as many as seven kinds. The soups are differentiated by ingredients. One kind can be made of beef, another of chicken, pheasant or other poultry, another of fish, another of vegatable, etc. Usually a small dish of soy sauce is also placed for seasoning.
The fourth row is for protein or heavy banchan. Similar to the soup, pick a type of protein and grill it. If the choice of protein is fish, the head should point toward east (i.e. the right side of the table,) and the back should point toward you. If the choice of protein is poultry, remove the head, intestines and feet. The grilled meat/fish is usually paired with pancakes (전) of some kind.
The fifth and final row -- farthest away from you, and closest to the dead -- is for the main dish. In Korean cuisine, that means rice, rice cakes and soup (yes, another one.) If the jesa is for both mother and father, there should be two sets of the same thing on this row. Pile the rice on high so it looks like a mound is sticking out of the bowl. For rice cake, avoid the bright colored ones that are usually eaten for happier occasions. The soup is a particular kind -- the beef turnip soup, whose recipe the Korean already covered here. (Yes, it is the soup for the dead, like the way seaweed soup is the soup for birthdays.)
The last "food" to be prepared, although not on the table, is the liquor. Koreans usually use cheongju (청주) for jesa purposes, which is essentially the same thing as sake. Also prepare soongnyoong (숭늉), i.e. boiled rice water, if you can. (If you know what it is!) Otherwise, a bowl of water will do.
Now, the Korean will note this again -- this arrangement and the kind of food may vary depending on the region, and depending on the family. In fact, the Korean omitted a ton of random little rules, because the list now is already pretty overwhelming. (For example, one rule of Buddhist origin prohibits the use of "spicy vegetables", such as garlic, chives, scallion and chili pepper because it disturbs the spirits.) Feel free to discuss your family practice on this post. If this arrangement absolutely has to be reduced to two things, Koreans would generally reduce it to the dried cod and the liquor.
Other Preparations and Setup
There are other important things to prepare for jesa on top of food.
Place the screen on the north, then place the jesa table in front of it. The north is the direction for the dead. So the idea is that the dead will visit from the north, and will sit behind the screen to partake. Needless to say, this means that the rice and soup should be closest to the screen.
The next is shinwi (신위), "the spiritual body". Shinwi represents the presence of the dead. This goes closest to the screen, in the center of the table. There are several forms that can qualify as a shinwi. In modern times, many families simply place a photo portrait. Very traditional families have a small tablet (either made of wood or stone) that they can use permanently. This means that the tablet has a long and complicated set of rules about how to be properly taken care of.
Example of a Wood-Carved Shinwi.
Click the source for interesting pictures of a mass jesa
honoring ancestors far into the history, held by a lineage society (종친회)
The compromise position is to have a temporary tablet. Basically there is a frame of a tablet, and a piece of paper identifying the dead is affixed on the frame. (The second to last thing at this link is that frame.) That paper is called jibang (지방). Modern Koreans often write the jibang in Korean, sometimes as simple as 아버님 신위 ("shinwi of father.") But for the sake of information, this is how one would write a traditional jibang in Chinese characters.
顯考 學生 府君 神位
현고 학생 부군 신위Hyeon'go Haksaeng Bugoon Shinwi
(Translation: Shinwi of Respected Father, a Student.)
顯妃 儒人 XX X氏 神位
현비 유인 XX X씨 신위
Hyeonbi Yu'in XX X-ssi Shinwi.
(Translation: Shinwi of Respected Wife from XX X Family, a Person of Confucian Virtue.)
- The three Xs on the mother's name denotes the mother's last name and her clan. (More info about clan names is here.) So for example, if the deceased mother is a Ms. Kim of the Kimhae clan (remember, Korean women do not change their last name upon marriage,) her jibang would be written like this:
顯妃 儒人 金海 金氏 神位
현비 유인 김해 김씨 신위
- The 學生 part in the father's and 儒人 part in the mother's are the places for the official title. The only time this changes is if the father or the mother held some sort of governmental office. The reason why the default is "student" for the father is because everyone in traditional Korea was technically a student preparing for an exam that would put them in a government office.
So for example, a jibang for a father who was a National Assemblyman would be written like this:
顯考 國會議員 府君 神位
현고 국회의원 부군 신위
(국회의원 = National Assemblyman)
- Jibang should be written vertically, like the way traditional Korean scripts were written. The picture above gives a sense of how it should be written.
- If the jesa is for both mother and father, each gets a separate shinwi.
Incense, Sand Bowl, Candles
You need incense and incense holder for jesa. The incense holder is placed in front of the table, packed with sand. Also prepare a bowl filled with sand. The burning incense represents the heaven, the bowl with sand the earth. You need to call upon both to recall the ancestors, as their spirits float in heaven while their bodies are buried in earth.
You also need two candles to be placed on the table, as shown in the picture.
Last thing to prepare for is chukmun, which is basically a eulogy to be read in the middle of the ceremony. This can get really complicated, so the Korean will only give an example of how to write a chukmun in case both parents are passed away. If you want to know any variation, you can ask the Korean separately.
Basically, this is what a chukmun says (assuming the jesa is happening on September 19 of 2010):
On the year 2010, September 19, filial child [NAME] dare call upon your name. Father, mother, as the year changes and the day on which father passed away has come once again, and as I eternally love you and cannot forget your mercy as big and wide as the heavens, I humbly offer you a meal with clear wine and various dishes. Please enjoy.
In Korean, this is what it looks like:
2010년 9월 19일 효자 [NAME]은/는 감히 고하나이다. 아버님 어머님, 해가 바뀌어서 아버님의 돌아가신 날이 다시오니 영원토록 사모하는 마음과 하늘같이 크고 넓은 은혜를 잊지 못하여 삼가 맑은 술과 여러가지 음식으로 공손히 전을 드리오니 흠향하시옵소서.
In modern Korea, it is not unusual for people to simply read a Korean chukmun. But this is the traditional way of writing it. Like the jibang example, the Korean assumes that the mother is a Kimhae Kim. Korean letterings are there only to assist the reading -- it should not be there on the actual chukmun.
歲次庚寅 九月 甲寅朔 十九日 壬申 孝子 [NAME] 敢昭告于
세차경인 구월 갑인삭 십구일 임신 효자 [NAME] 감소고우
[On the seventh year of tiger, ninth month whose first date is the first day of tiger, nineteenth day of the ninth day of monkey, filial child [NAME] dare call upon.]
顯考 學生 府君
현고 학생 부군
[Respected father, a student]
顯妃 儒人 金海 金氏 歲序遷易 顯考諱日 復臨
현비 유인 김해 김씨 세차천역 현고휘일 부림
[Respected wife, a person of Confucian virtue, of the Kimhae Kim family. The year changed and the date on which father passed away has come once again.]
追遠感時 昊天罔極 謹以 淸酌庶羞 恭伸奠獻尙
추원감시 호천망극 근이 청작서수 공신전헌상
[I eternally love you, and I cannot forget your mercy as great as the sky. Thus, I prepared clear wine, several dishes, and I humbly offer them.]
And FINALLY, you are ready to run a jesa.
Order of Jesa
- Open the front door to welcome the spirit.
- Set up everything. Place the jesa table so that the side where the rice, soup and utensils will go is facing north. Set the food, with the row nearest to the people first. Prepare the shinwi by writing the jibang, and set it at the head of the table. All attendees enter the room, and stand.
- Call the ancestors. The host of jesa (called jeju 제주) kneels before the shinwi, light a stick of incense and set the incense in the incense holder. Jeju's wife (or next of kin if unmarried) pours a cup of liquor and hands it to jeju. The jeju holds the cup with two hands, make a circle over the incense three times and pour the liquor into the bowl with sand. Pour the entire cup, but in three parts. Once done, jeju hands the empty cup to the wife, who places it where it was. Jeju stands up, and bows twice. Make sure the left hand goes over the right hand as the jeju bows.
- Greet the ancestors. Everyone who attended together bows twice toward the shinwi. Again, left hand over right hand. Then all attendees kneel.
- Offer the ancestors a drink. The jeju kneels before the shinwi, and lights another stick of incense. Receive a cup of liquor the same manner from the wife, circle the same way, then pour a little bit of the liquor in three parts into the bowl with sand. Then give the half-empty cup to the wife. The wife puts the cup in front of (from jeju's perspective) the fifth row of food, i.e. rice and soup, near father's shinwi first. Place chopsticks on top of the rice. Repeat for mother's shinwi.
- Read the chukmun. Usually jeju reads it, but some families have the oldest person of the family (who is not necessarily the male heir) read the chukmun. After the reading is over, everyone stands.
- Wife offers the ancestors a drink. Take the cups from the table, and empty out the liquor somewhere. (Usually a bowl next to the table.) Same order as the jeju's offering, except skip the pour into the sand. (In other words, just circle over the incense.) After offering, wife bows four times.
- The next-in-line male heir offers the ancestors a drink. Use same sequence as the wife's offering. Keep making offerings until there is no more adult male heir. If there is no next-in-line male heir, next of kin or close friend works -- there should be at least three rounds of drinks. The last person only pours about 70 percent of the cup.
- Jeju comes before the table again and kneel. Jeju's wife takes the liquor bottle (or kettle,) and add in three parts to the cup so that it becomes full.
- Serve the main course. Take the spoon, and stick it in the middle of the bowl of rice, with the concave side of the spoon facing east. Serve father first, then mother. Jeju bows twice, the wife bows four times.
- Everyone leaves the room for a few minutes so that the ancestors may partake in peace. Close the doors, and everyone waits while kneeling.
- Jeju coughs three times to let the ancestors know that people are coming back in. Then open the door to re-enter the room. Everyone comes back in, and kneels.
- Bring the rice water (or just water.) Jeju takes three spoonfuls of rice into the water. Place the spoon on top of the bowl. Everyone lowers their head for about a minute, then raise when jeju coughs.
- Jeju takes away the spoon and put them back in its original placement. Cover the bowls if they come with covers.
- Time to say goodbye. Everyone gets up, and bows twice. Take the jibang and chukmun, and burn them on top of the incense holder.
- Clear out the table. The food is taken to a separate room, and shared by everyone. Jesa is then over.
The Korean's final word on jesa:
The book Yemun (예문, "book of manners") says: "He who gives all his heart is the first in a ritual, and he who gives all material is the last." (盡其心者 祭之本, 盡其物者 祭之末.) The Korean gave a formidable, complicated list, but please do not be intimidated by it. This ritual has highly adaptive, and in fact has changed significantly over the years. We do need rituals -- the way we make ourselves do certain things in order to commemorate someone deepens our commitment to him/her. But do not forget that we are doing this out of love.
The Korean is from very traditional, extended families on both sides. He attended several jesas a year, every last one of them done to the last detail. But the most touching jesa story the Korean has ever seen came from the least complicated one that broke nearly every rule in the book -- except for the one that said, "He who gives all his heart is the first in a ritual." In the end, that is the only thing that matters.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.