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24 Jan 2013

One year – On the lunar new year last year, shortly after two o’clock in the morning, my mother-in-law passed away. Yesterday was the first anniversary of her death. These things are often calculated according to the lunar calendar, but in order to avoid conflict with the lunar new year it was decided that the date would be observed according to the Western (solar) calendar.

“Yesterday was a day of fond remembrance.”

Many families in Korea perform ancestral rituals on the anniversaries of the deaths of family members; however, many Christian families replace these rituals with a memorial service. The ritual is different, but the intention is the same: to honor and remember those we love who are no longer with us. Since my wife’s family is Christian, we held a memorial service.

There were fifteen people in attendance in total: Hyunjin, her sister, her father, and his two sons-in-law, plus relatives from both sides of the family. We started with a silent prayer, followed by a hymn. Then we read a passage from scripture, with my father-in-law reading one verse and everyone else following with the next. The passage we read was from the book of Revelation, chapter 21:

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

My father-in-law then spoke briefly about the passage, as he always does at memorial services in our family. (I have often wondered why he did not become a preacher or a professor; he would have been suited to either of those professions.) Then we sang another hymn and recited the Lord’s Prayer, and the service was over.

Then the main event began: dinner. We had prepared a lot of food, including short rib stew (a family tradition) and something called samhap—fermented skate, kimchi, and boiled pork. There were also various battered and pan-fried foods, stir-fried noodles, vegetable side dishes, various types of kimchi, and a distinctly non-Korean salad with toasted walnuts and pan-fried halloumi. There was way too much food for fifteen people, and we stuffed ourselves to the gills—but still of course had room for the traditional Korean dessert of fresh fruit (persimmons and Asian pears, in our case).

If there was one thing that my mother-in-law loved, it was entertaining guests and stuffing them to the gills with good food. So I think we were honoring her in our meal, and I would like to think she would have been happy to see everyone eating and enjoying themselves. When dinner and dessert were over, a blanket was brought out and some of the aunts gathered around to play a game called “hwato” (also known as “go stop”). This was another favorite activity of my mother-in-law. In fact, the last thing that she did with Hyundeok (Hyunjin’s younger sister) on the day before she died was to play a game with just the two of them. Hyundeok told us that her mother always used to lose to her and her father, but in that last game—when she was too weak to even sit up properly—she managed to score four hundred points in a single round. Hyundeok said, “I think that was the last thing she needed to accomplish. She left with no regrets.” We all laughed.

A year ago there was not a lot of laughter. It was a difficult time for everyone, obviously. We knew that it was coming—Hyunjin’s mother was terminally ill, and she spent the last months of her life in hospice care—but that didn’t make it any easier to accept when it happened. At the time, the week of her death, burial, and the subsequent rituals was a blur, but now the memories are stark and somehow still raw. The one thing that sticks with me is the role I played in the funeral procession. As the eldest son-in-law, it was my responsibility to take the funerary portrait and the “spirit tablet” (a tall tablet that bears the name of the deceased and in Korea symbolizes the spirit of that person) from the room when the wake was over and lead the procession down to where the coffin would be placed in the hearse. Then I would ride in the lead car, still holding the portrait and spirit tablet, and bring them to the grave, where they would finally be set down. It was a bitterly cold morning at the end of January, and when the doors to the parking lot outside opened a wind like knives rushed in. I waited an eternity for the pallbearers to bring the coffin out, and as I stood there in the cold, with the whole of the procession behind me, all I could think was: “Keep it together. This is your most important responsibility right now. Think of everyone else.”

After that week was over, I wrote a long description of events and my reaction to them, and I sent that out to close friends and family. It was a private thing then, and I think it will remain a private thing now, but there was one thing that I wrote that I want to share here. “Hyunjin said that she thought she would eventually run out of tears, but every time she thought she had, she would find fresh tears ready to flow again. I realized that there is no bottom to the well of tears—there simply comes a time when we no longer feel the need to draw from it.”

Hyunjin did not cry last night, and neither did I. Instead, we laughed. We laughed because we remembered the joy that her mother had brought to our lives. I’m not going to lie to you—I have not left the well behind yet. In fact, writing this is proving very difficult and very emotional. But I’m happy to say that yesterday was a day of fond remembrance. Parting with loved ones in this way is difficult; you know that you will not see them again as long as you walk this earth. But as the years go by the pain will subside, and in its place will remain laughter and memory, as friends and family members share stories of these loved ones. In these cherished memories, and in the ways that they changed our lives, they live on.

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