In the northern reaches of Seoul, enshrined high on a hill is the tomb of Lee Sang-gil (1556-1637). A civil minister turned leader when he went to fight in the Manchu War of 1637, Lee Sang-gil ended up hanging himself when the Quing invaded Kang-hwa-do the next year. The cemetery is circumscribed by a beautiful traditional Korean wall and has many stoic guardian statues watching over the tombs.
With the lack of space in crowded Seoul and with real estate prices soaring, cemeteries are not all that common in the city. Unless you were an important figure or owned an ancient family plot, you are most unlikely to find yourself getting buried in this metropolis.
But you will find on the sides of many mountains in the city beautiful grassy old tombs of ancient families and then higher up, surrounded by great walls are the tombs of ancient warriors, sons, and daughters of past kings and those most famous in Korean history.
In Hagye dong near my house, such a place exists. A beautiful, well manicured site for the resting place of Lee Sang-gil. The tombs are on the hillside overlooking the rows of apartments down below, which is typical of Korean cemeteries. A mound rises up about a meter from the ground where each body is buried. And in front of it, an alter for food which will be placed here during traditional Korean holidays when people come to bow before their ancestors.
While taking photos, I looked down at the park below and watched as people strolled by, sat on benches chatting and enjoying the midday sun. The cemetery is not a sad place but a beautiful quiet place to think and pass time. Traditionally, people visit their ancestors’ graves once a year to mow the grass and have a picnic and pay respects to their ancestors. It’s a strange concept for my Irish mind to think about having a picnic next to a tomb, but in such a nice place, one that makes sense.
Here is a portrait of Lee Sang-gil that I found on the city’s website.
The painting portrays a very stable image of him sitting down, placing his left hand over the right (as a gesture of respect) wearing pink dan-ryung clothes and low Samo hat.