Friday, November 04, 2011

Burial or Cremation?

Dear Korean,

Would there be any shame associated with cremating a loved one rather than burying him/her?

White Schoolteacher

Traditionally, Korean people preferred to bury their dead. Traditional funeral in Korea is a big affair, requiring many people dressed up in hemp clothes carrying a lavishly decorated casket, to the family burial ground where the entire family is to be buried. Below is a re-creation of a traditional Korean funeral. The Korean Grandfather's funeral looked like this, because he is from a traditional family.

But all that changed significantly in the last 20 years or so. As traditional family structure weakened, the younger generation decided that it was easier to tend a crypt than a burial plot with grass and a tombstone. Also, the government encouraged cremation and in some cases even provided a subsidy for cremation, as it was concerned about the family burial plots taking up too much land. The result is a dramatic increase in cremation -- from 17.8% of all burials in 1991 to 67.5% in 2010. In particular, overwhelming majority of city folks preferred cremation, compared to rural residents.

So at this point, it's safe to say that there is no shame associated with cremation.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I don't like to base shame on whether the majority believes that something that was unacceptable is now acceptable.

    Then, again, I still have strong connections with the the rustic part of Korea.

  2. i don't know about shame, but i definitely think there's prestige that comes with a burial mound since only the rich can afford them (for a burial, you'd need to own a burial site, pay someone to keep it groomed and manicured, make homages to that burial ground during big holidays.. etc etc)

  3. I attended both my grandfathers' funerals in Korea. The two families are about equal in terms of prestige and financial standing. One was cremated and the other buried; I think the only difference was that one had already bought a family burial plot back in the 1980s before land prices became crazy.

    Nor to my knowledge is there any strong religious component to it. When I was at the crematorium, my Protestant family was flanked by a Catholic family and Buddhist family.

  4. Sorry if this question is against the rules of the blog, but I cannot prevent me from asking: are the "acrobatic" parts of the burial in the video also common among regular traditional burials, like the one The Korean experienced? It is certainly full of symbols and meaning, but it seems quite dangerous. Something could happen to the precious casket...

  5. Actually, the "acrobatic" parts are only included to show what a funeral procession would do if it ran up against a narrow bridge, for example. Those parts are not required; they are only shown as an example.

  6. My father was cremated in Korea. As an American it was the most traumatizing experience ever. It is nothing like American funerals.

  7. A crypt is a chamber below a church meant for coffins or relics. While ashes can be kept in a crypt, cremated remains are almost always housed in a columbarium, a vault meant specifically for the storage of said remains.

  8. This was very informative, my Aunt passed away a few years ago & she was Korean. My uncle ended up having a cremation ceremony in Chicago Heights because of the cost associated with the traditional funeral. He now keeps her ashes in their home.

  9. It is interesting how different cultures prefer different methods of burial. I haven't ever really considered cremation. Is it common for Korean's to have cremations instead of burial?

  10. Rachel, it sounds like from this article that it used to be more common for Koreans to do lavish burials and funerals and only somewhat recently moved to cremation. It does save a lot of space and there are a few things you can do now with a loved one's ashes to create a keepsake. I've been considering cremation for myself because it is cheaper than a traditional burial.


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