Korean Ancestral Memorial Rites, Jerye.
According to a traditional Korean belief, when people die, their spirits do not immediately depart; they stay with their descendants for four generations. During this period, the deceased are still regarded as family members and Koreans reaffirm the relationship between ancestors and descendants through jerye on special days like Seollal (Lunar New Year’s Day) and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day) as well as on the anniversary of the ancestor’s passing (kije). This is to show appreciation and respect for late ancestors. The ancestral rites also symbolize the descendants’ prayers for a good new year and reaffirm the blood kinship between the living and the dead, thus strengthening the ties between the living family members. The three types of ancestral korean rites are collectively knows as chesa.
Both the kije and charye involve the preparation of special foods – the appearance of the food being as important as the quality and taste. Although certain elements vary from region to region, and family to family, the basic food arrangements are duplicated in households across the nation. Certain foods (red fruit for example) are placed on the east side of the table, while others (white fruit) must go on the west side. The row of food closest to those participating in the ceremony holds fruit, the next row, vegetables. Thick soups and a variety of meat and fish go on the next row with the far back row holding blows of rice and soup, as well as spoons and chopsticks. A small table holding an incense burner is placed in front of the ‘altar’ table and in front of it, a tray with wine is placed.
According to Korean traditions, the ancestors return to enjoy the holiday food prepared for them. An ancestral tablet is placed on the rites table along with all the dishes and drinks. In the past, the tablet was made of wood and called shinju or wipae, but today a paper substitute (chigang) is more commonly used. The ancestor’s name, title and place of origin are written in black ink on the chibang, which is then attached to the wall or to a folding screen placed behind the offerings table. The paper is burned at the end of the rite..
Traditionally, only male members of the family could participate in the ritual (the women prepared the food and were judged on its quality and appearance, but could not participate in the rites – this is now changing gradually, with more and more women are now allowed to take part). The charye ceremony begins when the eldest male in the family knees down at the small table to light the incense. He stands up, bows deeply (head-to-floor) twice and then kneels again and pours three cups of wine into a bowl to symbolize the ancestor’s descent to the offering table. Everyone bows three times – two head-to-floor bows, and then a light bow from the waist). The eldest son then offers a cup of wine after rotating it three times in the incense smoke. A younger brother assists by holding the cup while the wine is poured and then, after the wine offering, he moves the chopsticks to a plate of food. Everyone repeats the bowing ritual. Each son, in descending order of age, repeats the wine and food offering rituals and bowing. Some families stop at a certain number, but since Korean families are now smaller than they were, most of the brothers get their turn. Once the wine offering is completed, the eldest places the spoon in the rice bowl and the men either leave the room or turn their backs to the table so that the ancestor can eat in peace. After a few minutes, the men return, replace the soup with a bowl of water. They all bow again three times to conclude the ritual. The food is then served to all the family members. The formal Seollal bow is referred to as sebae.
Charye honors all ancestors for four generations back. It is normally performed on Seollal or Chuseok morning, with some families also performing it on Hanshik, the one hundred and fifth day after the winter solstice and on Tano, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.
The kije, however, is traditionally performed at midnight on the even of the ancestor’s death, although these days, most families conduct the ceremony earlier in the evening. Only one ancestor or ancestral couple is honored in the kije.
Myoje, or grave-side rituals are simpler than the Kije and charye with the offering including only a few days along with the wine.
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