What to Expect at a Korean Funeral: Practices & Customs

If you’ve been invited to a Korean funeral and aren’t sure what to expect, this guide answers all your questions and helps you navigate your grief with cultural sensitivity.

If you've been invited to a traditional Korean funeral, you might have some questions about the traditions and customs.

We understand that honoring a loved one can be a confusing time, especially when navigating unfamiliar cultural practices. 

Let's walk through what you can expect at a Korean funeral.

Overview of a Korean funeral ceremony

Korean funerals traditionally last for three days. Funeral homes or designated halls are common locations for the ceremony, though some families may choose a temple or church depending on their religious beliefs.

A Korean funeral typically unfolds in stages:

The initial greetings

When you arrive, you'll be greeted by family members. A bow is the customary way to pay respects, with a deeper bow offered to elders.

The wake

The body is usually present, dressed in white clothing. This is a time for family and friends to pay their respects. Feel free to bow towards the deceased and offer a few quiet words.

The procession

The funeral procession, often accompanied by a somber melody, escorts the deceased to the burial or cremation site. Participation is optional, but it's a way to show solidarity with the family.

The final resting place

Both burial and cremation are practiced in Korea. The ceremony typically ends at the graveside or crematorium.

Cultural norms and practices to keep in mind for a Korean funeral

Family roles: In Korean funerals, family plays a central role. The eldest son traditionally takes on many responsibilities, coordinating arrangements and acting as a pillar of support for the family during this difficult time.

You might see close family members dressed in mourning clothes as a visible sign of their deep respect for the deceased.

Professional mourners (Sogo): Korean funerals acknowledge grief openly. You might see mourners weeping openly or hear wailing lamentations. This is not a cause for alarm, but rather a demonstration of the family's profound sorrow.

In some cases, you might even see professional mourners (Sogo) hired by the family to express grief dramatically through their clothing and actions.

This is a traditional way for the family to outwardly display the depth of their loss.

Communal support: Sharing meals is a significant aspect of Korean funerals. Food served during the wake is a cultural practice that fosters a sense of community. We’ll talk more about that later in this article. 

What should you wear to a Korean funeral?

At a Korean funeral, dressing modestly and respectfully is key. Here's a detailed breakdown of what to wear to honor the person who has passed and show support for the family:

Men’s attire for a Korean funeral

Women’s attire for a Korean funeral

Korean funeral traditions: The 'condolence money' 

In Korean funerals, offering condolence money, known as beoseum (보상), is a unique tradition with deep cultural significance.

Historically, beoseum originated from a practical need. Funerals can be expensive, and this practice offered a way for the community to support the family during their time of grief.

The money helped with funeral costs, allowing them to focus on mourning without financial burden.

Over time, beoseum evolved beyond its practical roots to a symbolic gesture of empathy and shared sorrow. By offering beoseum, you express your condolences and show your willingness to help the family during their difficult time.

How much to give?

There's no strict rule on the amount, but a general guideline exists based on your closeness to the deceased or their family:

Always present an odd number: In Korean culture, odd numbers are considered lucky. Therefore, it's customary to offer beoseum in odd-numbered amounts. You can do this by simply adding $1, $3, or $5 to the amount.

Presenting the beoseum

Here's how to present your condolence money with respect:

  1. Purchase a white envelope specifically designated for funerals, often available at Korean stationery stores or funeral homes. These envelopes typically have pre-printed phrases on the front expressing condolences, such as "부의 (Bu-ui)" or "상제 (Sangje)".
  1. On the back of the envelope, neatly write your name in vertical format, starting from the top right corner and working your way down.
  1. You may also include a brief message of condolence on the right side of the envelope, below your name.
  1. Place cash inside the envelope. Koreans traditionally avoid giving checks or using credit cards for beoseum.
  1. Upon arrival at the location, sign the guest book before presenting your beoseum. Look for a designated table or box at the entrance or near the guest book specifically for collecting condolence envelopes.
  1. As you place the envelope, offer a respectful bow to the attendant or towards the family if they are nearby.

Remember: The most important aspect is to offer beoseum with sincerity and respect. The specific amount is less important than the gesture itself.

How do you participate in Korean funeral customs?

Showing your respect:

Understanding the rituals:

The wake and funeral meals

Korean funerals traditionally include a wake lasting several days. Food and drinks are often served during this time, and understanding the significance behind this custom can help you navigate these gatherings with respect.

Even if you don't eat much, consider taking a portion to show your support and participation in the shared meal. The meal is primarily about offering emotional support to the family. Engage in respectful conversation and share positive memories of the deceased.

Navigating the mourning period

While the formal funeral ceremonies may conclude after a few days, the Korean mourning period extends beyond that initial gathering. Here's what to expect:

Respectful mourning:

Jesa ceremonies:

Korean culture places great emphasis on honoring ancestors. Jesa (제사) are memorial services held to pay respect to deceased family members on specific anniversaries.

These ceremonies are like family gatherings where food offerings are presented to the deceased ancestors. It's a time for families to come together, share stories, and cherish the memory of their loved ones.

As a guest or friend, you wouldn't typically be expected to attend a private Jesa ceremony. However, if you're invited, consider it a great honor and a chance to witness this important Korean tradition.

Next steps

We hope this helps clear up what to expect at a Korean funeral.

Remember, the most important thing is to be respectful of the family and their customs. By following these guidelines and offering your heartfelt condolences, you can show your support during this time of loss.

If you, or someone you know, is navigating the task of planning a funeral or a memorial service during an emotional time, you don’t have to do it alone.

Meadow offers a helping hand. We understand the weight of this moment and aim to provide a compassionate approach. Our team of memorial planners serve the Los Angeles area.

Whether you're considering location options, need assistance with logistics, or want someone to take over memorial planning from start to finish, Meadow can be a valuable resource during this difficult time.

We offer guidance and support in creating a personalized celebration of life that reflects the unique qualities of your loved one.

Our team is available 24/7 to guide you through this process.

Explore our personalized memorial services to honor your loved one, on your own terms.