BUSAN, South Korea — I was in my first year as a teacher in Korea, and like a dutiful newbie I spent most of my time in bars. One of my favorite and frequent hang-outs was a place called the Hollywood Star in Seomyeon. It’s still there, but now called Foxy and is a very different place to what it was then. At that time if you wanted to dance in Busan, Hollywood Star and Soul Trane were the only options.
It was around the time of the 2002 World Cup and the place was buzzing every weekend with English teachers, locals and the sadly missed GI's. Behind the decks stood this huge Korean guy who went under the moniker of ‘Big Fun’. He was one of those wannabe hip-hop guys, not the sort of person I would normally hang out with back home, but in Korea anyone can become your friend, and friends we became.
Back then months seemed to pass like years, and it was probably only six months after getting to know him that I got the news one day that he had died, at 25-years-old. After the initial shock, my first obvious question was “How?”.
“Fan Death”, was the answer. I should have seen that one coming from 10 miles away. Of course I didn’t believe it, but to this day I'm still not really sure how he died.
My friend and I wanted to pay our respects, and we spoke to what is best described as the ‘Chief
Mourner’. Usually this would be the closest family member, but it turned out that Big Fun was an
orphan and had no immediate family. So, the job fell to his best friend, a guy called Jun, who was one of the main bartenders at the Hollywood Star.
We were told to go to the hospital, where his body was to take part in the mourning process which goes on for about three days. The night before the funeral, we descended into this rather sterile brightly lit room where a ‘shrine’ had been set up for people to pay their last respects. The thing that struck me the most was that on the shrine, next to Big Fun’s photo, were his vices. A bottle of soju and an eternally burning cigarette, so he could take them into the next life with him.
We were shown the correct way to bow and duly paid our respects. Respects paid, we sat next to the shrine and the inevitable soju began to flow in exorbitant quantities. This wasn't a night to take it easy. Eventually, we made our excuses and left and were told to return in the morning for the funeral ceremony.
We arrived a bit hungover from the night before, and well, stood around. Jun seemed very busy so we thought it best not to disturb him. Eventually someone told us that a bus would be taking us to the funeral and we should get on it. As the bus filled up, I stared out of the window and saw the funeral party bring out the coffin. I hadn’t noticed a hearse, but presumed there was one around somewhere.
And then, to my surprise, they opened up the luggage compartment under the bus and put the coffin in there! Big Fun was to make the journey to his final resting place riding along in the hold under our feet!
As the bus left the hospital and then left Busan, I started to wonder where on earth it could be heading. I saw a sign pointing to Seoul. Holy crap! I thought, I hope his hometown isn’t Seoul, because I had to be at work at 3 p.m. later that day. But, after about an hour, we arrived at this very large and very well kept cemetery with acres of green grass dotted with headstones. What a nice place to be laid to rest, I thought to myself.
But, the reality was to be very different
The coffin was taken to this large, rather ugly hospital looking building where it was unceremoniously dumped on to what could be best described as a hospital trolley. A big curtain was drawn around us and a quick ceremony was undertaken by a Buddhist priest. Along with his chanting, we had the added bonus of a wailing ajjuma. I thought she was thrown in by the funeral directors as part of the “package”, but it turned out she was some distant aunt that had materialized out of nowhere.
The ceremony finished, the body was wheeled away. “What do we do now?” I asked. Again I should have seen this one coming. “We eat” I was told. We proceeded to this huge restaurant where dozens of other families, also laying their relatives to rest that day, were tucking into bibimbap and knocking back the soju.
Lunch finished, we went to this huge waiting room. It was similar to an airport lounge, but instead of a big board showing all the arrivals and departures was a huge board showing everybody being cremated that day. I kid you not. Next to each name was a bar that got smaller and smaller indicating how long until your loved one was ‘done’.
Eventually Big Fun’s bar petered out down to nothing and was replaced by a room number, where we would go to collect his remains.
What happened next was surreal, bizarre and somewhat disturbing. We entered the room and waited by a conveyor belt. After a few minutes the conveyor belt roared into action and delivered a pile of ash that once had been Big Fun. Or, maybe I should say still was Big Fun, as the shape of human body was very clearly visible in the ashes, which the chief mourners had to shovel into an urn.
Ashes collected, the funeral party marched up a hill to this rather nondescript building. Upon entering, I was greeted by row upon row of little doors stacked 10 high and 50 across. Not too dissimilar to the rows of mail boxes you see at your local post office. On each was a photo of the occupant of the little box behind the door. Hundreds upon hundreds of photos of dead people. Big Fun had his place assigned. A pretty good one I thought, about eye level. I felt sorry for the relatives who got the short straw with either the really high or really low boxes. I wonder if they charge according to position.
Big Fun was placed in his little box, and after a brief prayer the door was shut and locked, and he was finally laid to rest. We headed outside, taking in the fresh air and pleasant surroundings, a welcome change to the experience of the previous few hours. After talking for a while we slowly filed back to the bus and back to the normality of daily life in Busan.
Check out Ask a Korean’s post on Korean funerals here.