Within an hour of my arrival at the morgue in Saedaemun, I – along with my mother-in-law, her pastor, and Won’s friends – prepared to take Won’s body to the crematorium at Seoul Memorial Park. The park wasn’t complete yet, there were still buildings under construction. But the crematorium was operational and in business.
Her cremation was one of the two most surreal experiences of my life.
First, we traveled there by bus. The bus belonged to the church that Won’s mother attends, and is used for funerals and other things. It’s like a tour bus, or a privately owned Greyhound bus.
Won’s casket was placed in the baggage area under the bus. I sat at the very front of the bus, holding her picture in a frame draped with black ribbons. At the crematorium, her casket was removed by several attendants, and placed on a special gurney, with somber colored cloth draped around it. We followed it in, and then were separated from her casket for a moment, and directed into a room.
Her simple wooden casket was placed in the crematorium, and our room was across the hall from the crematorium door. Our room had a little window in it, and from there I could look out and see the crematorium door. That door was open and her casket was wheeled in and placed on a stone pedestal. The doors were then shut, and the crematorium was turned on. The lights next to the door turned red.
The attendants who did all this performed their tasks with military precision, and bowed to us all in the mourning room. Won’s mother cried.
After a period of time, maybe one or two hours (I don’t really know how long – we spent that time alternating between crying and talking), the lights changed to green and an attendant opened them. He again bowed to us, went inside to the slab, and using a large metal dustpan and something like a fancy whisk broom, swept Won’s remains into the pan. I could see that her femurs were broken into pieces due to the cremation process. I could see that much of her skull was still intact.
The attendant then walked the remains to a different room. We were ushered out of our room, and followed. We came to the same room as the attendant, and entered through a different door.
This room was divided into two sections by a counter – just like the kind of counter you might find at a bank. The counter was just over waist high. Above the counter was a large piece of glass that further divided the room from counter top to ceiling, from wall to wall, again like a bank. On our side of the counter was a table that butted up against the counter. That section of the counter had something like a large doggie door.
The attendant’s side of the counter was very different. There was a marble counter top to our right, next to the door, just a little below the counter that divided the room. This counter top was about 6 feet long, with a large machine to the left side on the marble top. The machine looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t catch that right away. Toward the middle of the room was a large, box-like thing that was against the dividing counter and glass wall. The doggie door seemed to lead to that box.
The attendant took out a large sheet of brown paper – almost like the brown paper you would use to wrap a box in, before posting it in the mail. He set the paper down on the marble top, and then dumped Won’s remains onto it. He then picked up something that looked a like a brick made of dark metal attached to a handle. Holding it by the handle, he used the metal brick to crush Won’s bones. I watched as her skull, femurs, and mandible were crushed. I could see where her radius and ulna joined the humerus. After the attendant did this a few times, he pulled several bits of metal from the brick – which I now realize was magnetic. He got a couple bits of twisted metal, which I guess could have been her hair pins. He also found her heart valve, which was surgical steel, and not magnetic.
With the metal removed, he then carefully gathered up the corners of the paper, and lifted everything up, and then dumped it all into the top of the machine on his table. He put a lid on the machine, and then he hit a button that might have been labeled, “puree”.
The machine made lots of grinding noises.
When the machine was done, the attendant collected Won’s ashes from a chute at the bottom of the machine. The chute deposited the ashes back on the marble counter top, onto the same piece of paper he had used earlier, and placed there to catch the ashes.
The attendant then folded the edges of the paper over, making a neat little bundle. He then put that bundle into what looked like a Mylar bag. He then attached that bag to another machine on a table behind him, and we watched as that machine vacuumed out all the air, and heat sealed the bag. Just like a “Foodsaver” from Walmart.
He stamped the bag with a Han stamp, and then he put it into an inexpensive wooden box. He used a silk scarf, and wrapped the box with that, and tied it. He then put an adhesive paper ribbon with Won’s name, date of death, and other information, over the top of the box, over the silk.
Then he walked over to the larger box, which turned out to be a sort of airlock. He placed Won’s box of ashes in it, closed the door, and hit a button. There was the sound of a fan, and then the box of ashes came trundling out on a little treadmill, to stop on top of the table on our side of the counter top.
I picked it up, and we walked outside into the sunny, but freezing Seoul afternoon.
The box was very warm with her ashes. I hugged it close to me against the cold January breeze.
We walked to the bottom of the hill at Seoul Memorial Park, where there was a small shop that sold cremation urns. I already knew I didn’t want one. But we needed another service the store provided, a sort of Notary to indicate that the documents from the crematorium were valid and correct. I used these documents over the following days, along with a translation service, to get Won’s death registered in Korea, and to get permission from the US Consulate to transport Won’s remains with me back to the USA.
The process took several days.
I left Korea on January 14, just after noon. Or about 7 PM on the 13th back in California. You gain that day back when you fly from Seoul to California. I landed in California LAX just before noon, on January 14th.
On leaving Korea, Korean Customs stamped Won’s passport and VISA. On entering Los Angeles, US Customs checked her green card, then stamped her passport and VISA again. Then they asked me if I would like to surrender those documents now, or wait until a later date. I surrendered them. And that was the second most surreal experience of my life.
Oh, the urn. I didn’t want one because I planned to make my own. I still haven’t done so. But with my wood shop nearing completion, I think I will be able to create one soon.