Location is everything in the real estate game. Monetarily speaking, the value of a property depends on the area in which its located. A house in an in-demand, desirable neighborhood will fetch you more money than a house in a less redeeming area. Until artists move in and the cycle of gentrification begins, but I will save that discussion for another time.

Culturally speaking, location is everything in the placement of houses, temples, and graves in Korea. Geomancy, known as pungsu-jiri-seol (풍수지리설 風水地理說) in Korea, and feng-shui in the west, is still a deciding factor today in where people build structures or bury their ancestors. Simply put, an expert in geomancy determines which area is more blessed based on the topographic features. A proper location will guarantee good fortune and a content ancestor. People will search anywhere deep in the mountains to find the correct burial location for their family members.

Long ago, where burying the deceased intact was the standard method, cremation is the preferred method of preparing the dead for interment. Today, hypermodernity and tradition clash as land are at a premium. Sites once considered sacred to ancestors, like burial mounds, are being redeveloped at a higher rate, forcing people to relocate their buildings or loved ones to other auspicious resting spots. Some families forgo it entirely and place the remains in a columbarium (納骨堂, 납골당, napgol-dang).

At this moment, I am reading Seoul & Chemulpo Railroad by Patrick R. O’Donnell, and the book is about the first railroad line in Korea. One passage that sticks out was when workers had to remove graves standing in the way of the railway. Could it be fair to assume that the regular removal of graves came about as soon as Japan asserted dominance over late Joseon-era Korea? A section of Itaewon was a final resting spot for many during the colonial era, including Korean Independence hero Yu Gwan-sun. It’s interesting to think about how many urban areas around Seoul today used to be past graveyards for people. 

During my last visit to Gwangju in late May, my wife and I explored an old Catholic cemetery nestled on the side of Maegok-san in the process of widescale exhumations. The city wants to redevelop the area into a city park for families to enjoy. Nothing says a good time like having a picnic where great-grandma once lay for eternal slumber! Image conscious Koreans leave this kind of information out of Lonely Planet guides and government-sanctioned tourist brochures. I am fascinated by Korea’s darker, less-known history and want to learn and find more of this stuff.

It’s not too often you come across a graveyard in the process of being dug up. You’d think workers exhuming graves would treat the removal process with the utmost care and respect. Workers recklessly knocked down gravestones, digging holes without any thought of concern to those deceased. The weirdest part was finding pieces of coffins, shrouds, and, yes, human remains. The last time I saw human bones and cloth in the dirt was when I went and visited a killing field in Cambodia. What I saw was shocking and sad; if I had family being disinterred her and saw the sloppy work, I’d be outraged.

The Catholic cemetery in Gwangju has many neglected graves, most overgrown with kudzu. When I visited Bukit Brown Cemetery, an old Chinese graveyard in Singapore, I never saw any exposed bones or knocked-over graves. Still, nature took over some of the graves not cared for by the family, which was the case here in the Catholic cemetery. Traditionally in Asian culture, it’s a family’s responsibility to tend to the upkeep of a relative’s grave. I’m not sure how the overall process of exhuming remains went at Bukit Brown, but hopefully, it was (and still is being) exhumed with better care than the one here in Gwangju. Unsmoked cigarettes and newish soju bottles suggest that some families still tended to their graves to the last possible moment. I hope those who still managed their loved one’s graves had the choice to select who exhumed their graves or at least supervised the disinterment. How would you feel seeing pieces of your great-grandma strewn about an exposed hole?

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