Case study: Bowing at ancestors' tombs

Some general case study guidelines are available to aid in your reflection and discussion.

A graduate student is teaching English in Korea. He writes back to his professor in the U.S. with a question: Are there nuances of meaning in ceremonial bowing at ancestors' tombs that make that practice unacceptable to Christians?

     Here's the student's letter:

Dear professor:
     In our Cultural Anthropology class you had us do some case studies involving dilemmas faced by people of other cultures after they became Christians. I've been thinking about those that, in particular, involved new Christians who felt they could no longer participate in some of the traditional practices that their families expected them to.
     This past weekend -- September 17-19 -- was a major Korean holiday. The traditions associated with that holiday pose challenges for Korean Christians, challenges that are similar to those in the case studies we looked at in class.
     The name of this holiday is Chuseok (also spelled Chusok or Ch'usok). Chuseok is somewhat comparable to the American/Canadian Thanksgiving in that it involves a harvest celebration and is connected to their Harvest Moon.
     The holiday lasts three days. During that time everyone goes home to the grandparents' house on the father's side of the family where the entire family will gather. There is a lot of gift giving and eating of large meals. During this holiday, the grandparents will decide if this is the right time for the younger married couples to have their first child or to add another one, as the case may be. From what I understand, Chuseok is the largest and most important holiday of the year in Korea, surpassing even Christmas.
     What makes the celebration of Chuseok problematic for Christians is that during the holiday, families visit the graves of their deceased ancestors. During these grave site visits, rituals of gratefulness to the ancestors are performed, Thanks is given to the ancestors for providing materially for those currently alive. Prayers are said to the deceased and food is often offered to them. The blessing of the ancestors is invoked, during which time everyone bows before the tomb or tombs.
     Today, I had a discussion about this with a Dr. Cho, Korean Bible Professor from a nearby university who attends the International English Church. He told me that while he and his family visited the grave site of his deceased family members during this year's Chuseok, they did not bow as is the traditional custom.
     "Christians do not bow," he told me.
     Our own pastor was there for part of the discussion, and he mentioned that Catholics are permitted to bow in this situation. He also noted that many Korean Protestants consider Roman Catholics to be idol worshipers anyway.
     This issue is a source of tension for families in which some of them have become Christians and refuse to bow at the tombs of the ancestors. Other members of the family consider this refusal to be a serious form of rejection of the family.
     What if I get asked about the dilemma facing Korean Christians? How should I respond? Since the practice of bowing for greeting is such an integral part of Korean culture, could a Christian bow before the grave of an ancestor as a form of showing respect without it being an act of worshiping the spirit of the deceased? If so, how do the Christians distance themselves from the prayers being said to the deceased and from the food being offered to them?
Sincerely yours . . . .

arrow   PBS description of Chusok

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