I spent last week in Seoul, writing a story about the current cultural fashionability of all things Korean. One of the things that struck me was how – despite the city being at the sharp edge of digital futures – ritual and family still seemed at the heart of so many aspects of life. At the end of my trip, Sae-jin, my brilliant guide in all things Seoul, gave me a lift to the airport on his way to a funeral, and we got talking about the way of death in our respective countries.
The funeral he was attending, for the father of a colleague, lasted for three days between news of the man’s demise and the committal. In that time, the mourning family had an open house and friends and relatives were required to drop in and share a drink and a meal and some memories of the deceased. The idea, Sae-jin, suggested, was to keep the family busily distracted from the finality of their loss, to remind them that death was part of life and that life went on.
That idea has persisted across the years. It was the duty of the family – a happy not a solemn one – to create a table-groaning annual feast on the anniversary of the loved one’s death, again to reinforce ideas of celebration and continuity.
I contrasted those rituals with the vague British tendency to treat mourning as a more solitary and private affair, separate from the business of life. Sae-jin suggested, in turn, that perhaps some traditions for families were more amenable than others. As eldest son, for example, it was also his duty to maintain the family gravesite on the mountain. Regular hiking pilgrimages with a strimmer were mandatory.
The time difference in south-east Asia – eight hours ahead – meant that in Seoul I generally only started to feel sleepy at about the time I was due to get up for breakfast. During those early hours, with neon blinking outside the hotel window, I googled for jetlag tips. Instead, I came across the latest research into insomnia. A study by academics at the University of California in Berkeley has demonstrated that a lack of sleep has a link to a decline in empathy and generosity. They included an analysis of 3.8 million charitable transactions made as clocks were changed in the summer – losing an hour caused a 10% drop-off in giving.
The research lead, Matthew Walker, claimed that sleeplessness “degrades the very fabric of human society itself”. With that cheery thought in mind, I googled first Margaret Thatcher’s four-hour sleeping patterns, then a half-memory of Macbeth murdering the “sleep that knits the ravelled sleeve of care”. I then tried to think generous thoughts while watching the morning light invade my room again.
Reading political news in Korea, you couldn’t help sensing a few parallels with reports from home. The newly elected Korean president, Yoon Suk-yeol, and his “libertarian” People Power party squeaked into government promising vague cuts to red tape and a focus on “patriotic” values.
In the months since then, Yoon has been criticised for appointing cronies to key positions and for being absent during the catastrophic floods in Seoul last month (when many residents in the city’s Parasite-style basements saw their lives washed away). Yoon’s approval ratings have fallen further and faster than any president before him. As our own new prime minister may be about to discover, honeymoon periods these days can be measured in hours rather than years.