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North Koreans secretly bury ancestors in unmarked graves to avoid funeral costs

With rise in deaths from COVID-19, ‘forest supervisors’ patrol the hills to stop illegal burials, sources say.

Increased death tolls in North Korea due to the coronavirus pandemic have caused more people to bury their deceased family members clandestinely in remote areas by night to avoid high funeral costs, sources in the country told RFA.

In Korean culture filial piety is of great importance, and the head of the family usually has a duty to ensure that the graves of ancestors are well maintained.  The costs associated with burial or the less-than-ideal, but still respectful, cremation, are causing North Koreans to bury their loved ones in unmarked graves.

“In recent years, the death toll has risen sharply in our city due to COVID-19 and waterborne diseases,” a resident of the city of Chongjin in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “City and district authorities have strict rules about how the dead can be buried.”

Though North Korea maintained that it was completely “virus free” for the first two years of the pandemic, outside observers have widely doubted the claim.

Pyongyang finally acknowledged the virus in May 2022, saying that a large military parade at the end of April had spread the disease nationwide, and the government declared a maximum emergency.

While the country’s official COVID-19 death toll remains at six according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center, sources say that the actual number of North Koreans who have died from the disease is exponentially higher. Reports have surfaced saying that people who die of COVID-19 symptoms are often quickly cremated before a cause of death can be confirmed. 

But with more people dying, the living are suddenly hit with high burial costs, the source said.

“The authorities demand that family members handle the bodies. They must be taken to their hometown, where the family gravesite is, or to the remote countryside. Otherwise the body must be cremated here in town. But people are reluctant to use the crematorium because it takes too long and it’s really expensive,” he said.

The Chongjin crematorium is the only such facility in the entire 7,855 square mile province of North Hamgyong, home to 2.3 million people, according to the source, and cremating a body costs 430,000 won or U.S. $61, about the same as 50 liters (13 gallons) of diesel gas or 120 kilograms (264 lbs.) of corn.

“That’s a huge cost for ordinary residents, who can barely earn enough for one or two kilos of corn [about 3,600 to 7,200 won or between $.50 to $1] on a good day,” the source said. 

“Not only is the cost of cremation a problem, but the cost of transporting the dead body by car to the countryside is also high. Ordinary residents who cannot afford the costs are secretly buried [by their families] at a nearby hill in the early dawn. They bury the bodies without any marker or a burial mound to avoid the eyes of the authorities,” he said.

Once the authorities learned that people were secretly burying family members in unmarked graves, they created a band of “forest supervisors” to more closely patrol the hills near Chongjin’s cemetery, according to the source.

“If you are caught by a forest supervisor, you can’t just talk your way out of it, you also need to bribe about 50,000 to 100,000 won [$7.10 to 14.30],” the source said.

“High-ranking officials can preferentially use the crematorium for free and do not understand the situation at all. Residents are outraged by the fact that even a square inch of land is not allowed to be used for a proper burial of people who have lived through such hardship and struggle their entire lives,” he said.

Rural areas often lack easily accessible crematoriums, so authorities realize that burial is the only option, a resident of Pukchong county in eastern province of South Hamgyong, told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. 

“Authorities prohibit the burial of bodies in the mountains if they can be seen from town or from roads and railroad tracks,” the second source said.

“There are no crematoriums in other regions in my province except in the city of Hamhung. The authorities allow burial in a nearby public cemetery if there is a death in rural areas without a crematorium nearby. Those must be flatground tombs without burial mounds,” he said. 

Korean graves usually are marked with a small earthen mound, upon which grass eventually grows.

Having the tomb near the home is convenient because it minimizes the costs of funerals and makes it easier for families to visit on special occasions, the source said. 

On major holidays such as the Lunar New Year and Chuseok, which celebrates the autumn harvest, Koreans perform jesa, a memorial service for the deceased that includes a feast with extended family in front of the burial mound.

“It bothers me that my family’s graves are on flat ground, but I have no choice but to bury them in flat graves,” the source said.

“Instead, it is becoming fashionable to erect tombstones in cement or stone on a flat ground so that the graves of one's family can be easily identified. As the number of flat graves increases, it is not surprising that residents who have not yet erected a tombstone get confused and hold jesa in front of someone else’s tomb,” he said.

Authorities are pushing back on clandestine burials to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and waterborne illnesses, according to the source. Mandating flatground tombs for those legitimately buried is an attempt to preserve the aesthetics of nature, particularly if the burial area is visible from towns and roads.

The North Korean government has only reported a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, but it has been tracking fever symptoms since it declared a maximum emergency after the post-parade breakout.

According to data from the state-run Korea Central News Agency, more than 4.77 million people have come down with fever but only 74 people have died as a result.

The actual number of deaths is likely around 50,000 or even worse, Harvard University’s William Hanage wrote in the medical journal Lancet in June.

He said the figure was a “ball park estimate for what we would expect if North Korea were to see mortality like New York City did in the first wave. Essentially to illustrate a baseline for how serious it would be.”

The number of daily cases continues to decrease and North Korea on July 19 claimed that the “quarantine situation has entered a phase of complete stability.”

But the decline in numbers could be due to several factors, including: reduced testing due to change in testing strategy by government, fewer people getting themselves tested or an increase in self testing, Edwin Salvador, head of the World Health Organization’s Pyongyang office.

“WHO continues to request [health authorities] clarify the definition of these ‘fever’ cases including the management and treatment protocol,” he said.  

Translated by Claire Shinyoung O. Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA Korean.


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By Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA Korean | Radio Free (2022-07-26T23:22:43+00:00) North Koreans secretly bury ancestors in unmarked graves to avoid funeral costs. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2022/07/26/north-koreans-secretly-bury-ancestors-in-unmarked-graves-to-avoid-funeral-costs/

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