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  • Plaswuff
  • Veteran

    • 107

    • March 04, 2011, 02:36:06 pm
    • Yeosu
Korean Views of Death
« on: August 29, 2011, 01:03:48 pm »
It dawned on me the other day how many of the new superstitions I've come in touch with since arriving in Korea concern death. They all seem to conjure up a taboo around it.

For example:

Don't write a living person's name in red ink, because red, being the colour of blood, implies the person is dead.

Don't leave your cutlery in the food, as that is what they do at the memorial ceremonies when they offer food to their dead relatives.

I even heard that in some elevators they put F on the button to take you to the fourth floor because 4 is a number associated with death.

Thinking back to the few superstitions and customs of my own culture, I can't think of any that grant death such attention. The only thing I can think of that summons the idea of death or the fear of the dead would be dancing on someone's grave (I haven't thought very hard about it though).

I can't figure out why there is such a great taboo around death or the dead. This culture has one of the highest levels of respect for the elderly I've ever seen, and from my point of view death is just one step beyond that. Perhaps leaving your cutlery in your food is a privilege reserved only for the dead. Maybe not.

I guess China and Korea never really had a pantheon of gods, and a lot of their religious reverence was directed at their ancestors, so maybe their equivalent of leaving their cutlery in their food would be my equivalent of pissing against a church (especially if I were Christian).

I'd like to hear what people think about this, maybe why death is so feared/revered in this country, or maybe whether I've over looked similar things in other cultures and it's a worldwide phenomenon.


  • baja0204
  • Adventurer

    • 34

    • August 29, 2011, 12:13:15 pm
    • 대전
Re: Korean Views of Death
« Reply #1 on: August 29, 2011, 01:16:19 pm »
About the lack of a 13th floor in American buildings.


  • kyndo
  • Moderator LVL 1

    • 5450

    • March 03, 2011, 09:45:24 am
    • Gyeongsangbuk-do
Re: Korean Views of Death
« Reply #2 on: August 29, 2011, 01:33:43 pm »
While I agree, that Korean culture has quite a few traditions/tabboos/superstitions concerning death, I disagree that western cultures don't.

Number 4 (and in Japan, 7) are often shunned because they are associated with death - just as in how the number 13 is avoided (hotel rooms and floors, occationally house addresses etc) are avoided for the same reason (wiki origin of friday 13th superstition to get a truly sordid story involving the church, a large group of knights and lots and lots of firewood...)

Then there's westens mythology -- nearly every European country has its own myths involving where people go when they die (Valhalla, the Styx, Heaven/Hell, The greek underworld etc).

Also, a very large segment of our popular entertainment revolves around dead people and death (vampire / zombie / ghost movies, books and stories).

Sure, Koreans are obsessed by death, but so are the rest of us.  Human nature.  :D


  • Paul
  • Featured Contributor

    • 2055

    • September 21, 2010, 10:28:58 pm
    • Seoul
Re: Korean Views of Death
« Reply #3 on: August 29, 2011, 01:43:53 pm »
I believe the red ink was due to it being used to enter a dead person's name into the records in China, I'm sure someone can clarify this. But yeah, I don't think its strictly because it is the colour of blood. Same goes with the 4 issue. In Chinese, and thus Korean and Japanese too, the readings for the characters for four (四) and death (死) are largely the same. You are correct in stating "F" is a common substitute in elevators, I can think of a handful of buildings downtown just off the top of my head that have that. The cutlery thing is mostly chopsticks in food, as it greatly resembles a pair of incense sticks burnt during funeral rites across Asia in general (for an interesting and challenging diversion, try reading the Etiquette section of Wikipedia's chopsticks page and figure out a globally inoffensive manner to place chopsticks after a meal in absence of a provided rest).

Both are rather specific cases and I can't really think of an analogue to either of these in English or Western culture so I'd politely disagree that its an obsession, rather its just a thing.
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  • Plaswuff
  • Veteran

    • 107

    • March 04, 2011, 02:36:06 pm
    • Yeosu
Re: Korean Views of Death
« Reply #4 on: August 29, 2011, 02:13:09 pm »
Yeah, fair enough. I guess I'm pretty ignorant as to the rest of Asia and their cultural behaviors.

I wouldn't have called death a Korean obsession either (I'm hoping I didn't use that word in my original post  :P), just the subject of a lot more focus than in Western cultures. Or not even that. More that death has more superstitions orbiting it here.

I never knew that some buildings lack 13th floors, so I guess such superstitions do carry over to other cultures too. But even though the interpretation of the number 13 might have its origins in death, is it an idea of death that it conjures up now, or just an idea of bad luck?

TBH, it probably only seems more to me because these three superstitions are new to me and more shiny and glistening with novelty than anyone born here would find. I'd say practicality would have done away with them in the west (what if the only pen I've got is red???) but the 13th floor example disproves that.


  • kyndo
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    • 5450

    • March 03, 2011, 09:45:24 am
    • Gyeongsangbuk-do
Re: Korean Views of Death
« Reply #5 on: August 29, 2011, 02:36:54 pm »
Okay, yeah I guess I should qualify that: when I said Koreans are obsessed by death, I meant that they are as obsessed with death as the rest of us, and not particularly more or less. People spend way too much time worrying about death, IMHO


Re: Korean Views of Death
« Reply #6 on: August 30, 2011, 07:33:22 pm »
I believe the red ink was due to it being used to enter a dead person's name into the records in China, I'm sure someone can clarify this. But yeah, I don't think its strictly because it is the colour of blood. Same goes with the 4 issue. In Chinese, and thus Korean and Japanese too, the readings for the characters for four (四) and death (死) are largely the same. You are correct in stating "F" is a common substitute in elevators, I can think of a handful of buildings downtown just off the top of my head that have that. The cutlery thing is mostly chopsticks in food, as it greatly resembles a pair of incense sticks burnt during funeral rites across Asia in general (for an interesting and challenging diversion, try reading the Etiquette section of Wikipedia's chopsticks page and figure out a globally inoffensive manner to place chopsticks after a meal in absence of a provided rest).

Both are rather specific cases and I can't really think of an analogue to either of these in English or Western culture so I'd politely disagree that its an obsession, rather its just a thing.

The chopsticks in food superstition is the one that I've never heard before but I guess we learn new things everyday! I'll have to remember this next time I eating with the others since I think I tend to do exactly this.  :laugh:


Re: Korean Views of Death
« Reply #7 on: August 30, 2011, 08:17:21 pm »
Thinking back to the few superstitions and customs of my own culture, I can't think of any that grant death such attention.

Here's a bunch of western superstitions concerning death.  I remember my grandmother telling me a lot of these things.  I remember my friends and I holding our breathes when we drove past cemeteries (same with going under overpasses and through tunnels).