How South Korean’s Celebrate Their Loved Ones’ Death Anniversary

We all know that a death anniversary (or deathday) is the anniversary of a person’s death or in simple terms, it is the opposite of birthday.

It is a traditional custom in several Asian cultures, including Korea as well as in other places with significant overseas Korean populations, to observe the anniversary on which a family member or other significant individual passed away.


There are also similar memorial services that are held at different intervals, such as every week.

But aren't you wondering how South Koreans celebrate it?

Well if you are, then you better continue reading…

So, traditionally, South Koreans celebrate the death anniversary of their loved ones every year, where the family comes together to remember their dead loved ones and make offerings to their spirit in the form of lots of food and drink.

So what usually happens is that, the women traditionally prepare an elaborate set of dishes, including tteok, jeon, jeok, and so forth, setting it up, and cleaning everything up at the end while the men sit around eating the food and drinking alcohol around one table.  

On another table, food and drink is presented artistically around a picture of the dead family member, or if there is no picture, a possession of theirs or a note is presented. 

Once everything is in place, relatives of the deceased then take turns in bowing three times at regular intervals to the table, alcohol is poured into a bowl and spoons are placed inside bowls of rice and other dishes so that the spirit can eat if they choose to.

This ceremony held on the anniversary of a family member’s death is called gije (기제) , and is celebrated by families as a private ceremony.

South Koreans have maintained this tradition to remember and honor their ancestors on this day and the ceremony was traditionally held at jasi (Kor. 자시, Chin. 子時, the hour of the rat, between 23:30 to 00:30) when a new day starts.

There were two reasons for holding the rite at this time. First, the memorial rite was held at the earliest possible hour on the day of death to show that honoring their ancestors took priority over everything else. 

Second, this was deemed to be a quiet hour in the middle of the night that the ancestors would favor most for their visit to this world. 

However, the rapid growth of the urban population in South Korea following industrialization made it increasingly difficult to hold gijesa while living in the city, resulting in the tendency of performing the rite on the evening of the death anniversary.

Also, gijesa is typically held in the wooden-floored hall in the case of the head family of the clan or the main bedroom for ordinary families. 

Wealthy families with an illustrious history may build a special ritual hall in their homes, but it is normally reserved for rites held for ancestors whose spirit tablets are enshrined in perpetuity (bulcheonwi). While ordinary gijesa are held in the wooden-floored hall.

And as the hour of the rat approaches, the descendants prepare themselves to arrange food offerings and write prayers to be recited during the ceremony. 

Today, however, more and more families tend to omit the reciting of prayers, so families with no shrine of their own and hence no ancestral tablets prepare paper spirit tablets well before the start of the ceremony. 

The ritual officiants and the main participants of gijesa consist of the direct descendants of the ancestors to be honored and close relatives sharing the same family name.

But according to the concept of gagarye, the details of the ancestral rites can vary from one family to the next.

And gijesa also varies according to family in time, procedure and types and amount of food offerings. 

Today, it tends to be difficult for family members living in urban areas, as it often forces them to endure complex procedures and a long and difficult journey home to the countryside.

Despite these troubles, the gijesa tradition is still maintained in the great majority of South Korean families, likely because they still feel it important to have an opportunity to pay their respects to their ancestors.

So now that you know how South Koreans celebrate their loved ones’ death anniversary…

I wanted to know…

What do you think about it? 

I personally respect their tradition because Filipinos have a similar way of celebrating their loved ones’ death anniversary.

What about you? How do you celebrate it?

I would love to hear your thoughts below!

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