Citizens hold “spirit marriages” to honor victims of Gwangju Massacre

Posted on : 2018-05-20 18:23 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Ceremonies held to united men and women who died before marrying
 Yoon Sang-won and Park Ki-soon
Yoon Sang-won and Park Ki-soon

For three days, the shaman held an “afterlife marriage” ceremony. Two “souls” in the form of puppets were dressed in beautiful traditional hanbok robes. The shaman performed a ritual song for the young bride and groom, who had passed away before even reaching their prime. The mothers wept as they watched their son and daughter’s wedding. No other celebrants were present at the quiet marriage of two young people who met their early deaths while bearing the stigma of “rioters.” It was the saddest imaginable wedding.

“I had a little bit of a marriage ceremony back then, but I didn’t tell anyone back then because it was embarrassing.”

Victims of the Gwangju Massacre who were united in “afterlife marriage” ceremonies. Seo Jong-deok and Park Hyeon-sook (from above) Kim Yoon-su and Ko Young-ja
Victims of the Gwangju Massacre who were united in “afterlife marriage” ceremonies. Seo Jong-deok and Park Hyeon-sook (from above) Kim Yoon-su and Ko Young-ja

Park Hyeon-ok, a 58-year-old resident of Gwangju’s Buk (North) district, feels her heart ache when she thinks of the spirit wedding of her young sister, a victim of the Gwangju Massacre who died without ever marrying herself. The spirit wedding is a ceremony held to unite men and women who died before marrying in this life. Park Hyeon-sook was a 16-year-old third-year student at a girls’ high school when she was fatally shot by martial law forces in Gwangju’s Jiwon neighborhood while riding a bus on May 23, 1980.

“She was a bookish girl who sang well and wanted to be a writer someday. She was responsible and diligent,” Park Hyeon-ok recalled.

Park Hyeon-sook met her terrible fate while traveling to Hwasun to find coffins for bodies in the basement of the old South Jeolla Provincial Office, which served as a citizen army headquarters. Seventeen out of 18 passengers were fatally shot by martial law forces in what has become known as the “Junam Village Massacre.”

Park met her “groom” in 1985. He too was a member of the May 18 citizens’ army. Seo Jong-deok, an 18-year-old inn employee, was fatally shot by martial law forces on May 22 after joining in demonstrations while carrying a gun. The two of them were brought together by their mothers, who were visiting the old May 18 Cemetery at Mangwoldong. The union came at the suggestion of Seo’s mother.

Park Hyeon-ok recalled, “Our mother and father felt tremendously consoled after Hyeon-sook’s spirit marriage. They were very happy.”

Another passenger on the bus with Park Hyeon-sook was Ko Young-ja. Born in 1954, the Ilshin Textiles factory worker had boarded to travel to her hometown of Hwasun. She was a “considerate daughter who sent all the money she made to her parents, thinking of all the hard work they did and the faces of her younger siblings.”

The martial law forces left the bus riddled with bullet holes. In the book “Notes on the May 18 Democracy Uprising” published by surviving family members of victims in the Gwangju Massacre, Ko’s family wrote, “We barely managed to find Young-ja’s body, which was unrecognizable as a person.”

Bereaved parents feel relieved to send their children off to afterlife marriage

Ko was united with her spirit groom in 1983. While she never knew it in her lifetime, she did have a brief encounter with him just before their deaths: the man was Kim Yoon-su, the 27-year-old driver of the bus to Hwasun. With no bus service to Hwasun at the time, Kim was driving his own vehicle when he met his fate. After only just crossing paths during their lifetime, the two now lie interred side by side at the May 18th National Cemetery. Most of the spirit couples’ family members met while visiting the old May 18 cemetery at Mangwoldong, before they were moved to the May 18th National Cemetery; those meetings in turn led to the spirit unions.

Park Byeong-gyu, a 20-year-old freshman at Dongguk University when he was killed facing off with martial army troops while holding down the old South Jeolla Provincial Office, received his spirit wedding in 1996. With the situation spiraling out of control in May 1980, Park’s mother had called him to Gwangju, fearing for his safety on his own in Seoul. Yet by summoning him back, she ended up planting the seeds of tragedy.

After arriving in Gwangju, Park began taking part in demonstrations on May 19; it was on May 27 that he was felled by the bullets of the martial law army at South Jeolla Provincial Office. Park’s spirit was wedded to that of a woman who had died in a traffic accident – a union organized by residents in the vicinity of Yangdong Market.

“My mother said she felt relieved to have married off her second son. Four years later, she passed away,” recalled Park’s older brother Gye-nam, 61.

Park Gye-nam remained quiet and composed at the memory of his brother. During a visit to the May 18th National Ceremony last year, he met with women who had taken part in the last stand at the provincial office.

“For the first time, I heard that my brother had helped all of the women get out of there before returning himself on the final morning of May 27. I was stunned and in tears,” he remembered.

Born in 1960, Min Byeong-dae was another spirit wedding bridegroom. He had been working at a chicken farm when he disappeared after a May 23 telephone call to his younger sibling. “The situation outside is serious. Don’t come out,” he had said. The following June 4, the family was contacted by Gwangju City Hall and told he had died of a gunshot wound. Min’s spirit was wedded to a young woman who had herself died without marrying.

Best way to heal unresolved pain is thorough investigation of Gwangju Massacre

The first spirit marriage involving a victim of the Gwangju Uprising came in Feb. 1982 with the wedding of Yoon Sang-won (1950–80), who died while fighting to the last moment against the martial law forces, and Park Ki-soon (1957–78), a labor activist who passed away before the uprising. Park died in an accident in Dec. 1978 after spearheading the establishment of the Deulbul night school for workers in Gwangju’s Gwangcheon neighborhood the previous July.

During his lifetime, Yoon wrote a memorial poem for Park, whom he called the “big sister of the workers.” Penned on Dec. 27, 1978, it read, “Sister, you lived like a flame / Why are your eyes now quietly closed? / The rosy color that ran through your cheeks / Was always achingly beautiful / What is your death saying to me?” At the time he wrote these lines in his journal, Yoon had no idea he would be united with Park in the afterlife.

The spirit wedding between Yoon and Park came to wider knowledge through the popular song “March for the Beloved,” with lyrics written by author Hwang Sok-yong to celebrate their marriage. But the stories of other spirit couples have remained almost unknown. Family members have shied away from sharing their tragic deaths; most of the spirit weddings have been quiet affairs. During its recent investigation of the Junam Village Massacre, the Hankyoreh heard for the first time from civic groups related to the Gwangju Massacre about four additional spirit couples.

The best way to healing the unresolved pain of the May 18 spirit couples is through a thorough investigation of the Gwangju Massacre.

“There was not one massacre of civilians at Junam Village [with 17 victims] as the martial law command announced, but two, with at least 28 people killed,” said Jeong Su-man, a researcher investigating the tragedy. “There’s a strong likelihood that 17 of the bodies have disappeared.”

To date, the bodies of some 76 people who disappeared during the events of May 1980 have never been found – and their souls have yet to find their rest.

By Jung Dae-ha and Ahn Kwan-ok, Gwangju correspondents

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