Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Rituals after Dying Pt. 1/Gyeongju

I remember getting angry at my grandmother once when she said she didn't want an open-casket wake.

"But I have to see you!" I said.
"You're seeing me now."
"No...I mean...after you die. It's important for me to see the body."
"If you put me in a casket, I'm going to do this." *insert watching my grandmother pantomime sitting up in her padded eternal resting box and flipping us all the bird.*
"Ok, then. I guess that's settled."

We all have ideas about what we want done after we die- how we want our friends and family to gather. A funeral. A memorial. Spreading of our ashes. What songs we want played. What readings we want read. We think about the rituals we want performed after we die. Ritual is important to us, and it occurs to me that these rituals are really for the living; those of us who are left behind.

I've given up the idea of what I want to have happen to me after I die. I want whatever rituals will bring the living some comfort. Some closure. A religious funeral. A cremation. A hike on a hill. Prayers from a priest. Everything is welcomed if it serves those I love.

When Gareth died a few things happened, less because of desired rituals and more because of the circumstances of being in another country. His family and I also were privy to some Korean rituals surrounding the death of a loved one- some we expected, and some we did not. I'll try to list them below:

Gareth died on a Tuesday. He was kept in a morgue until Friday while the police report was being completed. (expected)

On Thursday we were asked to select and bring in an outfit for him to be cremated in. (not expected)

 (As an aside, it was easy to pick out what was one of Gareth's favorite outfits. I snuggled up to these clothes many times. Grey and burgundy- details that he would have pointed out: burgundy shirt, grey sweater (although he'd say "jumper"), grey belt, burgundy striped underwear, jeans, grey and burgundy socks, and grey leather converse high-tops. These shoes would be given back to us at the morgue and would remain in the trunk of my car until the memorial in Hadong on March 18th.- See next blog post.)

After delivering his clothes, we were asked to wait in a room and then taken to see him in the clothes we brought (not expected)

In a cold and antiseptic room in the basement of the morgue, we said goodbye again and then watched a most beautiful ritual of two men putting the wooden lid on his simple casket, wrapping it in white cloth in a ceremonious way, and fashioning handles out of strips of cloth which were wrapped again and again around the sides. The men and Gareth's dad and brother (women aren't to do this part) lifted the casket with the fabric handles onto a gurney and led it back into the room where the bodies are stored. Here, we placed Gareth's body back into a storage space and Gareth's brother was given a black marker to write Gareth's name on the side of the coffin (not expected) before the heavy door was shut.

Cremation was scheduled for the next day, Friday, and we were asked if we wanted to be there when his body went in. (not expected) We declined.

We arrived at the crematorium, which had a grand stone/marble facade (expected) and polished floors (seemed right). After settling the bill in a small office we were led up the escalator to the second floor which closely resembled an airport waiting area. (not expected) Plenty of seating, a large screen tv suspended from the ceiling in the corner playing what you might watch in an airport, and several black message chairs along the long windows. (certainly not expected)

Next to the waiting area was a small shop, not unlike where you'd buy your magazines, mixed nuts, and a crossword puzzle before your flight. In this one, you can purchase snacks, coffee, frozen treats, a few office supplies, and decorated wooden boxes and ceramic urns for your loved one's cremains. (not expected) We were asked to select a box. We did.

We waited in the lounge for 2 hours. That's how long it takes to cremate someone of Gareth's height and weight, we were told. We read his poems. We shared stories. We sat in silence. I got a message in a chair. (not expected)

After 2 hours, a young man in a pressed suit asked us to follow him down the escalator, to the lower level, through a few snaked hallways, to a room with a sign that read "Comb Out Bone." (absolutely not expected.) This small room had a glass divider in it- on one side stood Gareth's dad, whose arm I was clinging onto, me, and a Korean co-worker of Gareth's who had been helping with all of the translation. Gareth's mom and brother, having also seen what was in store ("Come Out Bone" was a hint) sat in chairs a few feet away, out of sight. 

On the other side of the class divider were two men in white lab coats with white surgical masks covering their mouth. There was a stainless steel gurney in the center of the room, behind which were two stainless steel doors with handles on them like a deep freezer might have. The two men opened the doors and slid out a tray- the same size as the gurney. The tray had on it what was left of Gareth. (not only not expected, but considerably traumatizing, although I felt compelled to remain there and watch it all.)

The two men very matter-of-factly swept everything from the surface into a large metal dust pan, which was then carried to the corner of the room and emptied into a machine. With a press of the button and a horrendous noise that I will not soon enough forget, Gareth's bones were turned to ashes in about 30 seconds. "Have you ever seen this before?" I asked Gareth's Korean co-worker. "Is this normal to see this? We would never see this part in our countries."

"I think it is normal. But I have never seen it." The three of us stood and watched. We were stunned. Shocked, I think. At least I was. I never in a million years would have expected to witness something like this, and while I later was a little angry with Korean culture for what I saw as a lack of sensitivity, I then thought about how I would explain open casket viewings to someone from a culture in which that wasn't a practiced ritual. I've been to at least a dozen wakes since I was a really little kid, and while the wake itself is sad, I think nothing of the idea of walking into a room where the body of the person I knew is dressed and made-up, often in a most-unnatural way.

Perhaps this was the same. Perhaps it was considered a great sensitivity to include us in this process. I try to look at it in this way.

At the foot of the gurney was a stainless steel table upon which a long piece of white paper was placed and folded. Here, Gareth's ashes were deposited, in the center of the paper, and then one man took great care to fold the paper around it in a very ritualized fashion. This was placed in the box we had selected a few hours before and the box was handed, through a cutout in the glass divider, to the attendant with us. (not expected)

White gloves were then given to Gareth's dad to wear in preparation of receiving Gareth's cremains. The attendant with us also wore white gloves. After securing the sides with tape, the box was beautifully wrapped in white silk in a way that inspired thoughts of people having done this for centuries. The box was handed over to Gareth's dad. White gloves to white gloves and white silk in between. (not expected, but touching and beautiful in some way)

"He's still warm," I heard Gareth's dad say. "He's bundled up and warm- like when I brought him home from the hospital."

Two days later, Gareth's cremains, carefully wrapped and secured in luggage, returned home with his mom, dad, and brother to New Zealand.  Here the family was faced with the task of gathering photos, selecting songs and readings, contacting friends and family, planning with the church, and otherwise preparing for the rituals that we need to celebrate someone after they've died. To place them back in the arms of God. To be with each other in our deepest grief. To remember and laugh. To be held and cry. It's what most of us need.

Those of us back here in Korea tried in our own way to be with those in New Zealand who were gathered to honor the life of Gareth. We stopped in prayer. We sent our thoughts. We spoke to one another. Gareth's mom asked if I'd feel comfortable sending a message to be read and my sister suggested I record it. In this way, I felt like I was there a bit. I was taking part in the ritual, and this brought some comfort (as well as incredible admiration, again, for a family who would be thinking of me in the time of their own grief.)  A new coworker (a Kiwi!) recorded it on the campus the university where I had been working for just a few days, and although I look back and cringe that I called a whole group of respected mourners "guys" (there are my American mannerisms coming out), I'm grateful to have been able to contribute.

It would be several weeks before I realized the deep need for some kind of ritual here in Korea. I understood the addition to closure that gathering with others for a funeral or wake can provide, and we'd have to create our own, perhaps unconventional ceremony for that to happen. It was suggested that perhaps I might consider burying Gareth's shoes, the ones that were in my trunk that I couldn't bare to give away, throw away, or even look at for some weeks. In time, that ritual of burial and gathering with others became something that I not only felt ok about, but felt like I needed. And if it was possible that others here who knew and loved Gareth needed that, too, then I was ready to take the steps to make it happen.

Next post: Celebrating/Remembering Gareth Lochhead in Hadong.


  1. Oh, Bridget. Reading this brought me to tears. Your writing brought me there with you. A complicated experience--moving yet traumatic. It also brought back my memories of Jessica's last days and her cremation. I hope you don't mind if I share those memories. Something about putting them down in writing so they don't continue to weigh me down.

  2. I never got to see Jessica's body after she entered that elevator to go down to the operating room where her viable organs would be removed for transplant. We were not allowed to see her in the hospital mortuary. The most they could do was sew her back up after her organs were removed, place her in a cart that would be covered, and bring her back up to the surgical ICU for my final good-bye, and then take her back down to OR and continue with removing her corneas, bones, and other tissue, such as skin, for transplant whenever they did that process. The family care counselor from the transplant agency was concerned that this would be too painful for me. I was weighing my decision, when I thought that bringing her back up for me would create a lot of trouble for the staff, especially, if it didn't pay off for me--meaning that it didn't helped me to see her lifeless body. So I said I needed to see the helicopters flying away with her organs. There were no helicopters, but her organs were taken away by limousine. We stood on the corner of the street in front of our lodging. The limousine was suppose to turn left and drive by us. We waited and no limousine came. I called back the transplant agency's family care counselor and she told me the limousine had already left some time ago. That was when I recalled seeing a black limousine turning right, away from us. If we had known, we would have toasted the limousine. We were toasting what was alive of Jessica and would remain alive after transplants. Later, I discovered they could not use her cornea, bones, or skin. Not only had I missed toasting her off, but I could have seen her after all in the hospital after the organs were removed. Several weeks had passed when I got a letter they were not able to use her tissue and bones; the only organs that could be transplanted were her kidneys and her liver. I am glad that she could give continued life to 3 other people. However, if I had known all this, I would have opted to see her at the hospital after the organs were removed or at the Crematorium before her cremation.


  3. We had to wait 2 more days for the Neptune Society to open. It was Presidents' Day holiday weekend and they were closed. The counselor (more of a sales rep) at Neptune Society maintained her business-like soft manner. I expected some words of compassion or something. I got gentle efficiency. I wanted her to feel what I was feeling. I asked her if she had any children. She replied she had a daughter and told me her age. When we were going over the paperwork, I read in the contract a phrase referred to as "Disposal of the Cremains." I reacted with tears and controlled anger and told her that they needed to change their wording. I objected to the word "disposal", as it Jessica were to be thrown away--disposed like trash. She maintained her gentle efficiency. If there was a nod of understanding, it was so subtle that I missed it.

    We had the opportunity to view her body before it went into the crematorium. That would have meant hanging around for an undetermined amount of time, away from our home. The "sales rep" at Neptune didn't even know the location of the crematorium. It was not there at the office site. John could not bear to see her body. All he wanted to do was get back to my brother's house, where Jessica's car was parked. He wanted to get as far away from the hospital and as far away from LA as he could. John drove us to my brother's house after we made arrangements with the Neptune Society. John drove Jessica's car the 6 hour-drive to our home, carrying the last of her belongings. I waited 3 more days for my sister to fly into LA so she could drive me and our car back home. I was in no shape to drive. It would be 2 weeks or longer before I could drive. Then it was difficult to drive without my vision being clouded up with tears.

    Did you find it helpful to see Gareth after he was dead? I would imagine it would be traumatic and painful to witness that last step of his cremation. I don't know what I need. I think about seeing my mother's body in her gasket at the viewing. She was cold and looked artificial. What was most different about he was she had these big boobs. In her elder years, she stopped wearing a bra and just wore a t-shirt, and her large, sagging boobs hung at her waist. She looked boobless. Her burial clothes included a bra which gave her support--thus the big boobs. The funeral home had put pink lipstick on her. My sister changed it to red from the red lipstick she had given the funeral home. Mom always wore red lipstick. In seeing and touching Mom, I knew she was no longer there. Yet, this was a different situation. She was not a young person, nor my daughter, who died, in her prime, a tragic death. She was 94-year-old and had lived a full life. She was happy to have had her children and grandchildren, and her simple pleasures. She called herself a "lucky lady." Jessica was very unhappy in her last days. Her tragic death was preventable.

    I wish I could have seen and touched Jessica's cold, lifeless body. Maybe it would help to know she is no longer here, because I still can't believe it. Maybe it wouldn't. I will never know and I just have to grieve and keep on keeping on. I know that time will not help with this, but love will. The best we can do is surround ourselves with love.

  4. This tore me up. I do most of my computer time at work, and I'm kinda thankful that today is an exam day and my office is empty, cause I am a teary eyed wreck right now. Saying goodbye is so important.
    We as his Daegu friends held our own wake/memorial, but seeing your pictures brings a deeper sense of closure to it all. In a way, it's even more shocking. It very much makes it 'REAL'.
    The rituals you experienced for saying your goodbyes were beautiful. I think I would have been traumatized about the 'comb out bone' room too, but I can see that for many people, it is something they may need to experience as part of their closure/grief process.
    I guess at the same times, coming back to revisit someone's passing is part of our grief process too. My cousin died, too young. He was a great favorite among our family. Before he passed, I had finally got to talk to him for the first time in 7 years. I am so thankful that I got to have that time. He passed far away from 'home' too. I wasn't able to attend his wake and be with my family, but that summer I stayed with my aunt (his mother) and was able to grieve with my family. To this day, I revisit his death and grieve. This was five years ago. It now only seems like two years ago. I imagine that after awhile, it will start to feel like 5 years, when I will actually be something like 8 or 10 years after the fact.

    I think in many ways this is how it will feel with Gareth's passing. It feels like yesterday, but we are now a couple of months down the pipeline. Like the other weekends we were camping, and Tammy and I were thinking, "Gareth should be here. He would love this." Next week is our Marathon to Shakespeare production, and I can't help but miss Gareth and the excitement he brought to the project. Truth is, with his passing, the project almost died before it even started. A week or so before he passed, he sent me a list of ideas he had for this Shakespeare project. Hamnet! 12th night in 12 minutes. Henry the V as a flashmob. (I really delighted in that idea, and still hope one day to see it happen)

    We miss him. As I sat here in my office crying, I could almost feel him say, "Hey, it's ok." Yes, it is ok. It will be ok. Doesn't mean we don't miss ya man.

    I don't always read all of your blog posts, but sometimes I see one and think, 'I have to read this one.' This was one of them. It was beautiful (like all of your posts) and insightful. It helps. It makes us aware of things.

    As always,
    A cheerleader in your corner,