The first episode of “Our New Proprieties and Rites,” a new series of articles published on Thursday marking the 98th anniversary of The Dong-A Ilbo’s publication, features a story of the eldest daughter-in-law who has to prepare 12 ancestral rites every year for the past 26 years of her marriage. In the story, devastated by sorrow, she almost decided to divorce when she was asked again to prepare a ritual food just a month after she underwent knee surgery. This is more or less what is happening in many families of Korean society.
Many of the proprieties that many of us are trying to observe under extreme pressure are in fact things either that are hard to find where they come from or just formalities are left with little substance in the course of their passing down. As for ancestral rites, people are supposed to hold memorial service in commemoration of family’s death days, not holidays. Multiple unnecessary holiday ceremonies are the outcome of an excessive competition among yangban, or nobleman, as the old rigid caste system collapsed in the late Joseon Dynasty. Wedding and funerals are overly celebrated or lamented, too. Many send out wedding invitations to anyone with acquaintance and go to a funeral just to see the chief mourner out of politeness.
In recent years, there is a movement to shed such formalities in our society. According to a survey of 169 head houses in North Gyeongsang Province, 10 houses hold memorial service for only three generations of ancestors and 31 houses for only two generations of ancestors. The meal for ancestral rites is getting simplified, as well. A survey conducted by the Korea Rural Economic Institute showed that 19.3 percent of the respondents this year said they are preparing food family members like, rather than following traditional rules, up from 12.4 percent in 2016.
Simplifying rite rules is not a magic bullet. Our ritual rules that must be followed should be handed down and cherished more while those obsolete should be changed reasonably. Forcing an implementation of simple rules as the Simplified Family Rite Standards were adopted in the 1960s and 1970s is not a desirable way of solving a problem. Civic society, government, and academia should work together to make outdated and unreasonable rites better. Whether it be memorial service for ancestors, wedding ceremony for blessing offspring, or customs for social relationship, we can find the solution if we find out the essence and true meaning of our traditional proprieties.