The dead among us

Author: Mary Haug

Growing up near the Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations in South Dakota, I heard stories about Native Americans eating meals on family graves. Picnics in cemeteries blurred the line between the living and the dead in ways that seemed dangerously pagan to a little Catholic girl. But then, years later, on a winter evening in South Korea, I sat in a silent apartment while the spirit of a dead woman ate her meal at a small table not three feet away.

I was witnessing an ancestor veneration ceremony, a custom of filial piety practiced by traditional Koreans. The host was a professor at Chungnam National University, where I was teaching for a semester. He was the eldest son and so was responsible for hosting and performing the gi, which honored his mother’s spirit on the first anniversary of her death by inviting her back for a meal.

He had rearranged his apartment for the ritual. Against the north wall were low ceremonial tables in oxblood red wood. On the smaller table lay a long-handled soup spoon, a pair of chopsticks, a bowl with incense sticks stuck in a mound of raw rice, a pair of candlesticks in oxblood wood and a framed photo of the mother. Behind the tables was a pleated linen screen stamped with images of men and women wearing traditional clothing called hanbok. Pinned to the screen was the ancestor tablet that listed his mother’s name, birthplace and title.

As I studied the characters on the ancestor tablet, I thought of The Book of Remembrances that lay on a small oak table in the church vestibule at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church. On All Souls Day, I would write the names of my grandparents in the book so Father would remember them during Mass and through his prayers free their souls from purgatory so they might at last enter heaven. Because my grandparents had died before I could retain them in memory, the act of writing their names in the book witnessed their existence for me and established my place in the lineage of the Woster and McManus families.

Shortly after my husband, Ken, and I arrived at the veneration ceremony, our host’s two brothers and their wives came in the door hauling large cardboard boxes and food carriers. They went into the kitchen and unpacked serving pedestals and platters in oxblood red wood and plastic containers of food.

I watched the women dust the serving pieces with paper towels and cover them with Saran Wrap. As the youngest one stretched the plastic film around the dishes, she said, “Saran Wrap is not traditional, but I don’t want to wash dishes when I get home. It will be late, and I have to teach tomorrow.”

After a bit, the host led Ken and me to the sofa. The brothers stood before the tables, their heads bowed, hands folded in front of them, the youngest brother wiping his eyes now and then.

In the quiet, I could hear the women whispering and laughing in the kitchen. Soon they brought in the platters of ceremonial food: grilled meat, dried sliced fish, sweet rice, pears, dates, chestnuts, peaches, apple slices and candy.

When they were done, they retreated to the kitchen. In traditional Confucian practice, only men can perform the ceremonies, and their faithfulness in preserving the traditions defines their worth as sons. The women prepare and serve the meals, and the quality and the presentation of that food defines their worth as daughters.

My family’s rituals

In my childhood, gender also determined the division of labor at funerals. A priest presided over the Mass, an altar boy served him, and the men in the parish dug the grave and carried the casket. At the cemetery they stood as honor guards while the priest performed the burial rites.

The women of Saint Mary’s prepared the funeral lunch, a ritual meal as prescribed for them as the ancient ceremonial food in Confucian tradition. I recall my mother, strands of damp hair slipping out from under her hair net, a flour sack apron covering her best dress, leaning over a counter in the kitchen of the old Saint Mary’s Social Hall peeling potatoes. She would pass the potatoes to a woman who would slice them and layer them in massive metal pans, while another woman added chunks of ham and slathered the layers with cream sauce. Across the room, women chopped cabbage and carrots for coleslaw, buttered the dinner rolls, and sliced angel food and spice cakes. They giggled and gossiped as they worked.

And I remember a speckled blue coffee pot, and how my mother would haul it to the cistern out back, set it on a concrete slab beneath the spout, and pump the long wooden handle until water gurgled to the surface and poured into the pot. She would lug it back into the kitchen, hoist it up to the counter, measure coffee in a tin cup, stir the grounds into the pot, crack an egg into the water, and then carry the pot to the stove and set it over the blue flames. For me, a funeral ritual will always be the soft laughter of women, the taste of potatoes and ham, and the smell of coffee rising in steam from a blue speckled coffee pot.

The gi, however, offered the scent of incense. Our host opened the apartment door to welcome his mother’s spirit to the table, and, as his brothers stood behind him, he knelt before the table and lit the incense sticks in the bowl of rice. He poured a cup of wine into a bowl to serve the underground gods, poured wine into his mother’s cup, bent forward and touched the hardwood floor with his forehead. After a few minutes, he rose, read a short prayer from a small sheet of transparent paper and stepped aside as his brothers knelt before the table.

Our host next took the lid off a stainless steel bowl of cooked rice, put a long-handled spoon into the bowl, laid a pair of chopsticks over a plate of meat, and pulled the folding screen around the table so his mother could eat undisturbed. For several minutes, the three men sat cross-legged on the floor without speaking. After a bit, he pulled back the screen, scooped rice into a bowl of water, and offered the rice water to his mother as a farewell gesture. The ceremony ended when the brothers bowed before their mother’s photo one final time and the eldest burned the ancestral tablet and the prayer.

The women then came in from the kitchen, cleared the bigger table, moved it to the center of the living room, and brought in our supper, called the eumbok (eating the ancestor’s blessings). We sat cross-legged on the floor for two hours eating communally from bowls filed with such items as bulgogi (grilled beef), soybean sprouts, lotus roots, acorn jelly, paejeon (green onion pancakes), cooked yellow fish, shiny silver dried anchovies (with scales and eyes intact), apples, pears, persimmons, tteok (rice cakes), bam (chestnuts) and nokcha (green tea).

After we had eaten, our friend knelt on the floor, propped a two-stringed cello, a traditional instrument called a haeguem, between his knees, and moved the bow over the strings, each quavering note cicadas in rustling tree branches. When he was done, he filled small glasses with soju (whiskey made from fermented sweet potatoes) and we toasted one another. Then he took pictures of us all, and we said our goodbyes.

When he rode the elevator with us to hail a cab, our host said that in the past the mourners would conduct the ritual at the gravesite, often more than once a year and generally honoring three or four generations.“

Now, because of busy schedules and the number of Korean women working, most Koreans hold the ceremony in their homes,” he said, adding, “Some women even order the ceremonial meal from online catering services.”

Like many Native American tribes and traditional Koreans, Catholics practice traditions that go back to ancient times. On All Souls Day, the Church draws upon the pagan Festival of the Dead, a night when the spirits returned to eat a meal. And Church, too, blurs the line between the living and the dead by encouraging the faithful to pray to the souls in heaven for support and intercession.

But I could never connect with my parents through prayer. They were in some unfamiliar place I couldn’t comprehend, and my words evaporated like messages in cyberspace. So I quit praying. And then the night I drove home after planning my mother’s funeral, I felt a presence over my left shoulder. When I turned my head, I saw the clouds spread across the horizon to the west. The light from the setting sun lit the clouds, and they glowed with a rich, deep coral color. I thought, “That’s where Mother is now. She’s in that sunset, in that radiant warmth.” To feel my parents’ presence, to have my words reach them, I needed to go back to the land and sky where their spirits rested.

Forty years earlier, we had buried my father on the east bluff of the Missouri River in a tidy graveyard near Chamberlain where rectangular mounds of white granite tombs line up like ivories on a piano and the grass is clipped and raked. Throughout my school years, my father commuted 20 miles from our home in Chamberlain, where we lived during the school term, to our farm on the west side of the Missouri River in Reliance, where we lived in the summer.

During those months in town, Mother had made a life for herself. She joined several coffee groups, a card club, TOPS club, and was the organist for Saint James Catholic Church in Chamberlain. Mother didn’t like being alone on the Lyman County farm, and we knew that after our father’s death she would never live there again. So, we buried him in the nearest cemetery.

In her later years, Mother’s Lyman County roots grew stronger as her own life grew more fragile. She drove to Reliance for Sunday Mass and coffee after with nieces, nephews and old neighbors, and stopped by the Reliance cemetery where my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, Lyman County neighbors, lay. As her health deteriorated, we pondered her funeral arrangements and agreed we wanted to take her back to Reliance, but we weren’t brave enough to discuss funeral arrangements with her. Mother believed that the death of an elderly person equaled abandonment by the doctors and the children.

Whenever someone she knew died, she would say, “Why do you suppose she died anyway? She was only 92; I just think everybody gave up on her.”

But one day over a dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy at The Cracker Barrel, I asked what she thought about having her funeral at Saint Mary’s and being buried in the Reliance Cemetery.

She said, “Well, I’ll be dead so I guess I don’t care.”

And when I asked if we could move our father to lie beside her, she said, “He’ll be dead, too, so you may as well bring him along.”

That was the sum total of my mother’s contribution to her funeral plans.

My mother died in July of 2005, and we did bury her in the Reliance Cemetery, where the tombstones scatter helter-skelter and the buffalo grass needs no tending. That spring, we moved our father from the cemetery on the river bluffs to lie beside her. Then, the following summer, on the anniversary of Mother’s death, 30 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered at a hunting lodge overlooking the Missouri River to celebrate our parents’ lives and lay their tombstone.

A veneration ceremony

While many Koreans have abandoned the old traditions of filial piety, I wanted to draw upon their ancestor veneration ceremony. So, I had asked my siblings, “Can we do some kind of ritual or ceremony at the cemetery, anything that celebrates our parents’ spirits?” They agreed.

On Saturday night, the kitchen staff at the lodge prepared a South Dakota eumbok, a buffet supper of our ancestors’ blessings — beef, chicken, corn, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, chocolate cake and weak coffee. After supper, we held a family talent show in the recreation room.

My brother Terry and his sons Scott and Andy brought electric guitars, a bass, and a sound system powerful enough to blast The Grateful Dead and Van Morrison across the river bluffs, where I imagined coyotes and deer, puzzled by the hard-driving beat of the bass, stood still, ears lifted, sniffing the air. My brother Jim sang “Green Grass of Home” and “The Auctioneer’s Song.” My California nephew Jim sang “Crazy,” and our daughter Maura sang “Proud Mary.” We did skits that poked fun at the siblings and my brother Kevin told funny stories about our parents. We laughed until we cried and cried until we laughed again. When the contest ended, a 4-year-old named Sam captured the trophy by singing “Ring of Fire.”

When the show was over, we congregated in the parking lot around Mother’s old Impala while our cousin Red stood on a balcony taking pictures of us. It was an evening worthy of being called an Irish Wake.

The next day, we drove west across the river to the cemetery. There, with the help of a young cousin, his front loader and the manpower of several robust grandsons, we lifted the shiny black granite stone from my brother-in-law’s truck bed to the loose dirt covering the graves. The stonecutter had etched a sheaf of wheat above my father’s name and a Celtic cross above my mother’s. A tiny ladybug cut in the stone crawled up the right side, signifying “The Ladybugs,” the name the six granddaughters gave the club they formed during summer visits with their grandma.

We wandered around the cemetery, reading the names on the tombstones and telling stories about the person buried there, filling in the sketchy facts on the stones. Finally, we gathered in a circle around our parents’ graves. Jim, the oldest son, stepped forward and said, “This feels right. It was good to bring our parents home.”

After some poetry readings, Terry led us in singing “The Irish Blessing”: May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face.” He continued in a shaky voice when the rest of us could not.

Standing in that cemetery surrounded by the graves of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, I remembered how eager I was 50 years ago to leave this place, how I believed that anywhere else was better. Fifty years ago, many Koreans also began to leave their villages, and in their rush to embrace their futures, they altered or abandoned the ancient rituals. Today, the neglected graveyards and crumbling tombs that dot the Korean hillsides give witness to that desertion.

I had journeyed full circle to that grassland cemetery, guided by the wisdom of ancient cultures who knew the value of ritual and remembrance at burial grounds, of picnics in cemeteries. I had returned to the landscape of my childhood where my family’s spirits welcomed me back, where my roots like the prairie grass spread their tendrils deep and wide beneath the Lyman County soil.

Mary Alice Haug grew up on a farm in central South Dakota. For 30 years at South Dakota State University, she taught English, including literature of the Great Plains, and writing classes that focused on exploring a sense of place.