Holding a memorial for a deceased family member is an easy way to feel closer to their memory as time passes. In many cultures, honoring the dead doesn’t end with the funeral. Participating in a ceremony on the individual’s death anniversary or special holidays helps with grief and brings families together.
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In Korean culture, the memorial ceremony for the dead is called Jesa. This is a general term that refers to different types of memorial ceremonies, some of which occur on major holidays like the Lunar New Year. However, the most common type of Jesa takes place on the anniversary of the deceased person’s death.
In this guide, we’ll explore what happens during a Korean Jesa ceremony to uncover the importance of this tradition.
What’s a Jesa Ceremony?
Ancestry and honoring the dead is an important part of the Korean funeral process. As such, it’s no wonder that Koreans take such care to honor their dead on a yearly basis. Jesa ceremonies are a large part of Korean culture, and it’s one of the few things that’s survived to modern-day.
However, each family and city has its own way of performing Jesa ceremonies.
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Like many Korean traditions, Jesa has ties to Confucian teachings. Confucius taught that piety and love for one’s family members are at the foundation of every society. Because of this, many rites and practices in Korea focus on respecting and honoring one’s ancestors and family. This is true for all family members, but it’s especially true for parents.
In Korea, it's believed that the spirit does not immediately leave Earth after someone dies. Instead, the spirit remains with its surviving family members for multiple generations.
During this time, the spirit is still considered part of the family. Holidays and traditions celebrate and honor these deceased family members as a way to show respect. The relationships between the living and the dead are important, and Jesa is a way to strengthen these bonds.
The Koreans who take good care of their ancestors encourage these deceased spirits to look over all living descendants. Today, Jesa is performed several times a year.
It’s a tradition that takes place on special holidays as well as the anniversary of the deceased individual’s death. The ritual is for up to 5 generations, and it always takes place at the home of the eldest descendent. With this origin in mind, it’s easy to see why Jesa continues to be a large part of Korean culture.
Jesa around the world
While Jesa is a Korean custom, it’s very similar to ceremonies you’ll find in other parts of the globe. It’s actually adapted from similar traditions in China, though they go by other names.
As populations of Korean immigrants grow around the world, it’s not uncommon to see Jesa practices in North America and Europe. However, since these are typically kept within close families, it’s unlikely they’ll be open to outsiders.
That being said, Jesa resembles many other cultures that have a practice of celebrating the dead. In Latin America, Dia de Los Muertos is a day for remembering one’s ancestors through a large celebration. Similarly, in the Jewish faith, immediate family members perform Yahrzeit as a way to memorialize a loved one’s death anniversary.
Though they might be separated by countries and continents, many cultures throughout the world mark the deaths of their loved ones in unique ways.
Jesa Ceremony Rituals
Because Jesa is so rooted in Korean tradition and customs, it’s not easy to explain to outsiders. The word itself roughly translates to “death anniversary,” but this doesn’t reveal much about the ritual itself. Breaking each individual ritual into its different parts makes the entire tradition easier to understand.
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Choosing the location
First, the family chooses the location for the Jesa ritual. This could be at the graveyard of the deceased, or at a family home. If it’s at a family home, it should be at the home of the eldest son. It’s important to note that this tradition is shifting towards allowing the event to be in a daughter’s home. Again, it depends on the family.
Once the family chooses the location (cemetery or home), everyone makes arrangements. You’ll quickly see that the many steps in this ritual add up quickly. Everyone in the family joins together to help in some way.
Prepare food and drink
Next, the women of the family (wives and daughters) prepare food and drink for the ritual. The food is traditional in nature, and it’s typically based on the personal preferences of the ancestor who they’re celebrating.
The meal does not need to be any specific thing, but it usually includes taro soup, fish, meat, colored vegetables, fruits, and rice cakes. An entire feast is prepared, and it takes a lot of time for the family to put together this meal. Food plays a large role in Korean culture, so it’s no surprise it’s a part of death customs as well.
Create a shrine
Before midnight on the anniversary of the ancestor’s death, the family creates a shrine for the deceased. This shrine has a memorial tablet known as a shinwi, a written prayer, and also a photo of the deceased person. The photo is a way to represent the person’s spiritual presence, and it has to face north on the center of the table.
Around the table, the food and drink prepared previously rest in a specific order. The west side of the table is for rice, meat, and white fruits. The east side is for fish, soup, and red fruits. In the case of celebrating a female ancestor, the rice is placed on the opposite side. Each row also has a specific organization as well. The family takes special care to ensure everything is correctly placed on the table.
After the family arranges everything correctly, the family does ceremonial bows in front of the shrine. This is done in a specific, sincere way to show respect and love to the deceased ancestor.
After this, it’s time for the family to enjoy the feast with all of the prepared food. Though it’s understood that the ancestor isn’t able to participate in the meal, they’re treated as a guest.
Cleaning of the tomb
If the ritual is at the gravesite instead of a family member’s home, there are specific rituals for that as well. The most important one is the cleaning of the tomb. It’s considered respectful for family members to clean and cut the grass off the tombs of their ancestors.
In addition, they place a picture of the ancestor on the tomb and offer the same foods we discussed above. Finally, the family members bow in front of the grave as a sign of respect. If the weather allows, the family also enjoys the meal around the grave like a picnic. If the weather isn’t nice, the family brings the food home.
Jesa Traditions in Modern Korea
With so many strict rituals outlined above, you might imagine things changed over time. While the overall structure and significance of Jesa is still the same as it was in the past, there have been some changes in modern years.
The biggest change is that most families today only hold Jesa for up to 2 generations of ancestors or even just the deceased parents.
More people advocate for greater gender equality within the tradition, especially when it comes to cooking and preparing the feast. In addition, it’s becoming more common for these rituals to take place in the eldest daughter’s home instead of just the eldest son. This makes the event more flexible and simple for many families.
Paying Respects to Ancestors
It’s interesting to see how death in different cultures means different things. In Korea, death is a way to strengthen family bonds. The souls of ancestors linger, watching over family members and descendants for generations to come. Families show their love and respect for these spirits throughout the year by performing Jesa.
While Jesa might seem complex from an outsider's perspective, it’s ingrained in Korean culture. It’s more than just a memorial ceremony for deceased ancestors. It’s a way to connect living relatives, enjoy a home-cooked feast, and take part in family traditions. It also demystifies death and the afterlife, encouraging Koreans to look at this natural phenomenon in a positive light. If those we love are closer than we think, it’s not so hard to live life to the fullest.
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- Chung-un, Cho. “Whose family first? Seollal depicts gender inequality at its rawest.” The Korea Herald. 14 February 2018. KoreaHerald.com.
- Hyeon, Chang Lee, Young Kim, Yang Suk Kim, Young Yun. “Ancestral ritual food of Korean jongka: Historical changes of the table setting.” Journal of Ethnic Foods. Volume 5, Issue 2, June 2018, Pages 121-32. ScienceDirect.com.