Friday, November 19, 2010

Korean Purgatorial Societies

In most  parishes, a group of parishioners are responsible for helping those who are nearing death.  Stateside they are often called purgatorial societies. Members pray, have Masses said, or do good works for the dead. However, in Korea these societies have been 'Koreanized,' doing much more than is commonly expected, which shows the importance of death in the Korean psyche.

These Korean societies assist the family in every way possible and arrange for the priest to come, if the one dying has not already received the Sacrament of the sick. At death, when the undertakers were few and the people poor, the members of the society would do the work of the undertaker as a voluntary work of love. They would wash the body, clothe it, take care of the rites for placing the body in the coffin, and pray the office of the dead (yeon do); when sung, this takes about one hour.  This was a  great consolation to  the family, for many would not know what to do. They would also make the funeral arrangements and be on call for the bereaved family until the burial and even after, if the family wanted.

Some parishes have their own mortuaries where the body remains until the day of the funeral. Members of the purgatorial societies  are usually the older parishioners and not infrequently,the largest group in the parish. They have motivated many people to return to the Church, seeing the devotion of these Catholics as they went about their duties during times of  bereavement. Their presence at the home of the deceased or in the mortuaries  giving strength to the bereaved families is truly a beautiful sign of God's love.

During this month of All Souls, many articles on death and dying  appeared in the Catholic press. The  Peace Weekly interviewed a 53-year old who has been a  member of the society for ten years.  When she joined at the age of 43, many of the older members thought she would not be reliable, perhaps believing that at her age, she would not be able to have sufficient empathy for those who are facing death; they expected she wouldn't last long. However, they changed their minds soon after she became a member. They now call her Mrs. Kim, the undertaker.

She travels to different parishes giving lectures on the office of the dead and how to recite it. Having a mother who used to walk an hour every day to Mass helped her to follow naturally in her footsteps, and seeing death often as a child also helped. At the age of 10 she saw a woman who had hung herself in her garden; at 13 her younger brother died suddenly, and in high school, she witnessed the death of a street person. When she saw people stepping over him on the sidewalk, she had her first doubt about the dignity and goodness of humans. All of it, she believes, was a preparation for her work as a member of the society.

These purgatorial societies are an important  part of the Church but probably nowhere in the Catholic world, outside of Korea, would you have a purgatorial society that expects so much from its members. We are  grateful to them for their selfless dedication in performing a difficult task so well.

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