All Souls Day and Reflection on Death

By Dr. Paul Hwang (ALL Forum Director)

As it is well known for Catholics, the Catholic Church in the world celebrates November 1 as All Saints Day. And the eve of October 31 is what we call Halloween or Hallowmas, which has become so familiar that it is no longer unfamiliar to any country in the world including Asia in which Christianity exists. It seems obvious that sin, suffering, and death are among the unavoidable things which humans cannot avoid. In Korean Catholicism, along with All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day on the following day, November 2nd, it defines November as the month of all souls of the dead. In the face of such death, Halloween does not seem to fit the sentiments of Asia, including Korea, in that it seems rather a time
to quietly contemplate human life and death than a bustling and noisy festival. However, on the other hand, the unconventional wisdom of Westerners who celebrate in a cheerful and joyful manner and sublimate death which seems against human will as a festival may be something Asia can learn.

Today I am going to talk about a tragedy that happened in Korea last week. As you may know from the media, there was a tragic incident in which many young people who came to enjoy the festival in Itaewon, Seoul, the capital of Korea, were crushed to death. For those of you unfamiliar with this horrific event, let’s start with a brief summary of how and why it happened.

The Itaewon district in Seoul filled with emergency workers on Sunday morning.Credit: Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Itaewon district in Seoul filled with emergency workers on Sunday morning. Credit: Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The tragedy occurred in which 156 citizens were crushed to death in the narrow alleys and passageways of Itaewon, where people came and went. Even before and on the same day, dangerous situations were repeatedly occurring due to crowds moving without proper guidance or control on congested and dense side roads. Nevertheless, the risk was not managed, which eventually led to catastrophe.

According to the BBC, from the early evening of the 29th, October, thousands of young people flocked to Itaewon area, mostly young people. Itaewon is a party hub, with mazes of alleys filled with bars and restaurants. It is said that 100,000 people flocked to Itaewon alone on that day to celebrate Halloween. As the quarantine measures related to COVID-19, which had been in place for the past two years, were lifted, citizens were inflated with anticipation. An Indian who lives near Itaewon and who has always enjoyed Halloween celebrations here for the past five years also experienced the day. According to him, a Halloween festive event was held in Itaewon last year, but police personnel were put in to control the crowd so as not to overcrowd. But this year there was little police control after the new government including Seoul mayor, police, and ministers has taken the political power. Perhaps that is one of the main causes of the tragedy.

Of the 156 victims of this disaster, 104 were young people in their 20s. It is said that among the dead there were those who died standing. Father Kim, who lost his son (25) at the scene, was frustrated when he found out that his son had died standing because of stampede. When a lot of people pour into a narrow alley, it should be a one-way street, but it was not controlled that way. He said in an interview with a local media, “Coming up from here and coming down from there, people in the crowd couldn’t even move in anyway. I found out that he died standing there. Because he was stuck standing up like other victims. Even if you are dead there, you cannot go down.” In these short description, it vividly shows how terrible the situation on the day was. The young people who experienced the deaths of their peers in the Sewol ferry disaster happened in 2014 are again feeling depressed and anxious beyond pain and sorrow.

Lee Insook was one of the thousands of Seoul residents who flocked to City Hall on Monday (31/10), to pay tribute to the victims of the Itaewon Tragedy.Credit: BBC/Tessa Wong

Lee Insook was one of the thousands of Seoul residents who flocked to City Hall on Monday (31/10), to pay tribute to the victims of the Itaewon Tragedy. Credit: BBC/Tessa Wong

Are those young ones who participated in and finally lost their lives in the festival to be blamed for the cause of it? That was what the current government including the president himself actually tried to do. The presidential office ordered to use the words “the death of accident” in order to remove those of “victims of the tragedy” currently and voluntarily used by people themselves. Confronting a strong opposition from people it changed its mind and turned to and finally accepted the people’s original wording.

If you look at the entrance to many Catholic clergy cemeteries, you will find the inscription “Hodie mihi, Cras tibi” (Today me, Tomorrow you). This can be taken as an invitation for those who pass by the grave without thinking anything to meditate more deeply on death at least once.

Humans are born and die in this world regardless of their free will. In many cases, one can agree or reject according to one’s own free will, but only the issue of birth and death lies outside the human choice. We call this fate, and the master
of this fate is not human. If we accept that the parents who gave birth to us cannot do anything about life and death, our lives can be changed. Only when we confess that it is the absolute God can I become a religious person and a believer. May the young souls who died in Itaewon, all those who have died unfairly, and all those who are dying may find rest in peace through the mercy of God. Amen.*