The Mountain Sanctuaries of Korean Ancestors

BY YUNA CHONG

We drive hours into the mountains in the early morning daylight, united under a sort of mutual understanding. The clouds and pollution gradually recede to reveal a baby blue rare in the capital. As I get out of the car I am struck with wonderment by the sight of Cheonan Memorial Foundation: rows of graves on mountain terraces, each resting place decorated with fake flowers in every imaginable color. The air is crisp, and I feel a lighter, more enduring form of goosebumps that does not fail me every time I’m here.

The rumbling sound of a plane overhead disrupts the tranquility momentarily. As we set up the mat, rice cakes, fruit, dried fish, and my grandfather’s favorite brand of cider Chilsung, the only times the silence is broken is when we are uncertain: Should I cut the fruit like this? Don’t we have to pour the wine out every time? What about the incense? Funny, how much cultural knowledge has dissolved into modern whims, and yet how staunch our feelings of ancestral duty remain.

We bow down two times toward my grandfather’s grave, each person offering him a glass of Korean rice wine. We speak as though he is watching us, the sun beating down our backs on this particularly sunny day. My aunt holds an umbrella to escape the sun, while I roll up my sleeves in order to get a more even tan. I see another family paying their respects in the distance and feel less alone.

A cemetery, surely, but nothing like what we’ve come to expect after watching so many horror films. Rather, a mountain oasis dedicated to our resting ancestors, a place where we come to remember to never forget.

 

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