Korean Catholics at the death of a parishioner meet at the home of the deceased to extend their condolences to the family and sing the office of the dead--yeon do. In recent times the yeon do would be recited in the hospital's mortuary, at the cemetery, in church, during visits to the home after burial, and also at the home of the deceased on the anniversary of the death.
A priest columnist in the Catholic Weekly introduces us to the meaning that the yeon do should have for Catholics. Many Catholics think it's a prayer only for the dead but he mentions an old book, written in Chinese, that explains the yeon do and gives three reasons for the prayer.
The singing of the office more easily lifts our thoughts up to God, helps us to compose ourselves, and increases our hope. Secondly, obedient to the directions of the music and with our sincere intentions, we are fighting off the devil and other distractions from the world outside. Thirdly, at a funeral we tend to be sad and anxious but with the singing, our uneasiness becomes easier to accept than it would be for those without hope.
The yeon do is composed of psalms of repentance, petitions for deliverance, and confessions of faith. More than prayer for the deceased it's a prayer for all of us.
The old Christians would pray the yeon do as an evening prayer. With the singing of the office our frustrations, sorrow, anxiousness in the presence of death are changed into thoughts of the Resurrection.
The priest mentions that in singing the office our minds are set on the resurrection. In the recitation we reflect on our life, our frustrations, failures, and feelings of guilt. Listening to the music we are consoled.
In the United States recently for lectures, the priest was explaining the yeon do to second and third generation Koreans; on hearing the melody and the singing of the yeon do, they were overcome with pride for their forebears in faith.
One young man asked, “Father, how is it that 200 hundred years ago our ancestors were able to make this calm and beautiful rap? This was the period of the persecutions, wasn't it? Would it be alright to introduce our yeon do rap in English to the young people?" (The yeon do does sound very much like rap music.) "Of course," the priest replied.
For many American missioners this was a distinctive part of the funeral service. It was very moving with an atmosphere for prayer that allowed one to reflect on some of the more important concerns in life. A beautiful custom that, thankfully, does not seem to be changing with the times.