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The Living Behind the Dead

Updated: Apr 24

The Contestations of Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery [1]

By Kim Mikyoung*

I. Encounter with the Site

During a site visit to Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery in June, 2022, I ran into an elderly woman. She was desperate trying to find the burial mound of her late relative. She said, "I should see her before I die." She repeated the name of the deceased and described the two magnolia trees planted near the tomb. Yet finding the tomb turned out to be an impossible task. The terrain was not only vast, but it was also near ruin. The overall terrain was covered with weeds and trees growing right next to the mounds. It appeared to be a deserted land.

(Source: Mikyoung Kim, 2022)
Figure 1: The Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery in 2022

There is no on-site management office to assist the bereaved families or to maintain the cemetery. The only way to obtain information on the cemetery was to call the phone number listed under the Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery over the internet. I was informed that there is no record of the buried and their burial sites: "It was built a long time ago when systematic record-keeping was not a norm." In other words, it was totally up to the families to look after the burial mounds.

Furthermore, the cemetery space was invaded by neighboring vegetable farms, planting vegetables right next to the burial mounds. Burial mounds are still regarded as a sacred place for ancestor worship in Korea’s Confucian cultural context. How can we explain the current state of the Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery? What has happened to the sanctified space? These questions will be explored in this essay.

(Source: Mikyoung Kim, 2022)
Figure 2: Farming Activities at the Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery in 2022

II. Cemeteries and Burials in South Korea

Before delving into the details of Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery, this section provides a general overview of South Korea's cemeteries and burial customs.


There are four types of cemeteries in South Korea: private, family, family clan, and corporate. Private cemeteries consist of one tomb or a unit of tombs of persons who used to be in a spousal relationship. A family cemetery is made of tombs of persons who were related to each other according to civil law. Correspondingly, the family clan cemetery is meant for the members of a family clan who are buried in the same area. And finally, the corporate cemetery is installed by a corporation that provides spaces for tombs of many unspecified people in the same area.[2] Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery is a collective of private cemeteries.


Three types of burials are customary in South Korea: burying of bodies or remains, cremation, and natural burial. Article 2 of The Act on Trade distinguishes between these three types in three subparagraphs. Subparagraph 1 defines "burial" as burying of bodies or remains in the ground, and ‘body’ as including a fetus that died four months after pregnancy. Per the next subparagraph, "cremation," refers to the act of burning dead bodies or remains. Finally, "nature burial" means burying the ashes of cremated remains under or around trees, flowers and grass.[3] Because of limited space and concerns about hygiene, cremation and natural burials are increasingly becoming the preferred method of burial adopted by Catholics. The specific site of Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery houses about 5,500 burial mounds for the Catholics and meant for the burial of bodies.

III. Urban Development and the Cemetery

Rapid Urban Development

The Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery in Busan was established in 1958 in the southern coastal part of Busan City (population 3.4 million as of 2020). It used to occupy the open hills situated in the then relatively underdeveloped area. With the rapid growth of Korea’s national economy, Busan’s scenic coastal area drew the attention of real estate developers who successfully transformed the neighborhood into posh apartment complexes.

(Source:, accessed June 12, 2022).
Figure 3: The Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery in 1958

(Source:, accessed June 12, 2022).
Figure 4: The Construction Site Near the Busan Yongho-dong Cemetery in 2007

What has happened to the cemetery after 64 years of its history calls for careful attention because it has now mostly become a deserted space.

IV. What Happened to the Cemetery: The Living Behind the Ghosts

The Korean Business Law

According to the South Korean government business law, all the burial mounds at the cemetery were supposed to be relocated by 2019 at the latest. These are quotes from the relevant legal stipulations:

• Duration of tomb installation: The installation period of tombs in private cemeteries shall be 30 years (Article 19 (1) of the Regulation on Business, etc.) When calculating the installation period, if it is a joint burial mound, it shall be calculated based on the date of the joint burial (Article 19 (3) of the Regulation on Business, etc.).

• Application for an extension: If a person related to a tomb whose installation period has passed applies for an extension, the installation period shall be extended to 30 years only once (Article 19 (2) of the Regulation on Business, etc.).

• A relative of a tomb whose installation period has ended shall remove the facilities installed in the tomb and cremate or seal the buried remains within one year from the end of the installation period (Article 20 (1) of the Regulation on Business, etc.).※ Any person who fails to remove, cremate, or seal a facility installed in a tomb where the installation period is over shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than one year or a fine of not more than 10 million won (Article 40 (6) of the Regulation on Business, etc.).[4]

The Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery established in 1958 was supposed to be shut down in 2018 according to the law. Given the one-year extension period, it had to be closed with all the burial mounds relocated elsewhere by 2019 at the latest. The relatives of about 5,5 00 burial mounds are violating the law at the risk of imprisonment for not more than one year or a fine of not more than 10 million won (approx. USD 9,500). Why, then, is the cemetery in such a dilapidated condition?'

The Busan Catholic Diocese's Relocation Plan

The Busan Catholic Diocese was mindful of the Korean Business Law. After the 30-year tomb installation extension in 1988, the Busan Diocese attempted to utilize the cemetery lot. On December 28, 2008, they announced a plan to build an elderly care facility which was to be completed by 2016. Their plan was to open the facility two years prior to the final expiration of the cemetery’s legally permitted operation period. The national news wire service reports the details of the plan:

Nam-gu[5] announced on the 11th [of December, 2008] that the Busan Catholic Diocese has submitted a business plan in order to build a residential welfare facility for the elderly in Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery. And the plan is currently under review by its Urban Management Section. The Catholic Diocese is planning to relocate 5,500 tombs on a 202,640㎡ site through compensation and spend 30 billion won[6] to build 60 buildings, social welfare centers, and sports facilities. These buildings will be constructed under 3 stories where senior citizens can live and receive welfare services. The Catholic Diocese plans to start compensation procedures for the relocation of the cemetery from 2012 and complete it in 2016 if the district office allows the changes in the use of the site, which is currently a natural green area to a social welfare facility site.[7]

The residents near the cemetery area began to make their demands as the Busan Catholic Diocese was making its plan for the post-2018 era. They happened to live close to the cemetery and had little to do with the Catholic religion. In a briefing session held on the 8th of December 2018, the neighborhood’s residents said, "As we have been enduring financial damages due to the cemetery for more than 40 years, please create convenience facilities and recreational forests for residents to use." Unlike some societies which do not shun cemeteries and tombs located near the residential areas, Koreans avoid the spaces related to the ghosts and the dead. These spaces are mostly tombs, cemeteries, crematories, and spots of tragic deaths. In part, the avoidance of interacting with spaces relating to the dead reflects shamanistic folk beliefs that ghosts with unresolved grievances refuse to go to their final destination and hover around this worldly realm. This belief leads to the stagnation of real estate prices adjacent to the cemetery. The Busan Catholic Diocese responded that it would try to secure green spaces as much as possible and construct social welfare centers and sports facilities for the residents.[8] It also emphasized that the elderly care facilities will operate on non-profit principles. It seemed like all the parties, the Busan Catholic Diocese, the South District Office, and the neighborhood residents, were preparing for the relocation of the tombs in order to abide by Korea’s business law.

(Source: Mikyoung Kim, 2022)
Figure 5: The Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery in 2022

The present existence of Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery, however, is a telling reminder of something that went quite wrong between now and then.

Discovery of Bronze Age Relic

In March 2013, the local newspaper, the Busan Ilbo, reported the finding of bronze age relics in the vicinity of the cemetery. The article reports that "According to the Busan Metropolitan Government, the Busan Metropolitan Museum, and the Nam-gu Office on the 21st [of March, 2013], a bronze-era relic was found in a hill near the Catholic Cemetery in Yongho-dong, the city of Busan (author's translation)."[9]

There was a precedent set 30 years ago when Neolithic relics were excavated in the same area. In 1982, seven pieces of historical artifacts, including the stone statue, a Neolithic relic, were discovered by a resident who was making a vegetable patch in his residence.[10]The 2013 discovery of bronze age relics ignited the contention between developmentalists and cultural preservationists over the development of the Catholic Cemetery.

(Source:, accessed June 13, 2022).
Figure 6: Bronze Age Relic Found Near the Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery

Accelerating coastal development correspondingly increased the need for systematic excavation to discover and preserve the few remaining coastal cultural properties. The cemetery, located on the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, became the site of contention.

Preservation of Cultural Properties

The Busan City Museum’s statement sent to the Nam-gu Office upon the discovery of the bronze age relic states that "If the farming activities continue in this area, a drilling survey should be conducted." Following the city museum’s advice, the Busan Metropolitan Government and the Nam-gu Office secured the budget necessary to conduct the surface survey. They also installed guide posts to induce excavation and investigation prior to farming activities which could potentially result in changes in the shape and quality of the terrain.[11]

The Korean government enacted a survey of cultural heritage index under the 1999 revised Cultural Heritage Protection Act. The Act stipulates that architectural civil engineering projects with area size of 30,000㎡or more are required to conduct an investigation of buried cultural heritage index in advance. Index surveys determine the existence of buried cultural properties through fragments of relics exposed on the ground, ancient documents, and high-altitude analysis without digging the ground. The Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery with the size of 202,640㎡had to undergo the surveys according to the law. And that is the primary reason for its current state of affairs. In a nutshell, the preservationists prevailed on the logic of developmentalists with the help of the Cultural Heritage Protection Act. The preservationists were mostly history NGOs and researchers of local and national history who emphasized the superior values of relics over the sacredness of the cemetery. The contestations on the land were about what kind of meanings to assign to the land. The living were the shakers and movers 'behind the dead.' It is worth noting that the dead did not feature in the calculus of the affairs regarding the preservation of cultural properties. The cemetery still stands, enduring gradual erosion and amnesia with the passage of time.

Busan Catholic Dioceses' Response

When it became clear that the plan to build elderly care facilities and relocate 5,500 tombs elsewhere was implausible, the Busan Catholic Diocese decided to construct another cemetery in the city of Yangsan (pop. 353,000 as of 2022). Yangsan city is located in the immediate vicinity of Busan. With the Yongho-dong cemetery still in its existence, it was impossible to build another Catholic cemetery within the city perimeter. The best logistical alternative was construction of a modern Catholic cemetery in the close distance which offers daily Masses as well as cremation services as an alternative to burials.[1]The Church gave up its plans to redevelop Yongho-dong cemetery. While the lot of land still belongs to the Busan Catholic diocese, the archeological survey was not conducted, and the cemetery has been left in the state of ruins. The Yangsan Catholic Sky Park Cemetery was opened in 2019.

(Source: Mikyoung Kim, 2022)
Figure 7: The Busan Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery on the Coastal Hills

Families' Responses

The families who bear the responsibility of maintaining burial mounds at the Yongho-dong cemetery are left with three choices: maintenance, abandonment, and reburial.

Given the lack of record keeping, it is hard to know how many burial mounds are regularly maintained, left unkempt, or relocated. Internet searches indicate that both maintenance and relocation activities are on-going. The companies offering weeding and uprooting of the tree services as well as reburial services are in business.

V. Conclusion: Significance of Cemetery

A cemetery is a space for the living to continue their relationship -- imagined or real -- with the dead. It is the site for recollection, dialogue, commemoration, and veneration. A cemetery transforms something transient such as ephemeral memories into something tangible such as tomb inscriptions.

The dead might care less about the location, environment, and exterior of the earthly abode. They can do nothing about the physical aspect of it. The logistical work belongs to the living. The tasks of funeral arrangements, burial rituals, cemetery maintenance and ancestral worship fall on the descendants’ responsibility. A cemetery, the tangible manifestation of intersectionality between life and death, mirrors the motivations and actions of the living. This is the point where the stories of Busan Yongho-dong Catholic cemetery reveal the multilayered complexity.

The Church embodies history, traditions, and customs. As worship services are often regarded as a crucial element of religious practice, funeral and burial rituals are a unique bonding practice for the community. It connects the Church to the followers, and the living to the dead. It reaffirms shared intimacy and destiny. The Busan Diocese of the Korean Catholic Church was no exception to these activities. Like many other parallels, it also aspired to fulfill its communal services by constructing the Yongho-dong cemetery in 1958. It has been a home for 5,500 Catholics for 65 years.

Whereas the ultimate vision of Christian faith is resurrection and eternal peace, the Church as a worldly institution is subject to various logistics such as law, market forces, and changing social norms. These forces shaped the fate of the Catholic cemetery in the city of Busan. The Busan Catholic Diocese has made a most rational decision by not pursuing its original plan to transform the vast cemetery space into elderly welfare facility. The financial cost it would have to bear in the case of successful excavation of historical relics would have been enormous. If the Church wanted to redevelop the land, the diocese would have to conduct the surface survey and pay for it. Instead of violating the Korean Cultural Heritage Protection Act, the diocese chose to build a modern cemetery in the city's vicinity as an alternative. The irony here is that the families of 5,500 graveyards have become de facto criminals for the violation of Korean Business law which stipulates the illegality of maintaining burial ground for more than 60 years. Without being able to hold any party morally responsible for the current deplorable condition, the cemetery is standing still in its continuous erosion.

The tale of Yongho-dong Catholic Cemetery is ultimately about the dead who are lost, trapped and abandoned due to the workings of the living, intended or unintended.

(Source:, accessed June 29, 2022)
Figure 8: The Yangsan Catholic Sky Park Cemetery

* Mikyoung Kim is research fellow at Northeast Asian History Foundation in Seoul, Korea. She was a tenured faculty at Hiroshima City University of Japan from 2005 until 2017. She is the author of several books. Her book, Routledge Handbook of Memory and Reconciliation in East Asia (Routledge, 2015), won the Best Book Award by ROK Ministry of Education in 2016. She is the book series editor of Palgrave Macmillan Human Rights Studies in Asia.

[1] This essay is a preliminary report drawing on the discussions at ISAC's Tombs and Cemetery Study Group. It, therefore, poses more questions than providing answers. For the details and specifics this essay has not addressed yet, it will be filled as the research makes further progress. The author is thankful for all the warm encouragement and camaraderie from Bernado Brown, Michel Chambon, Jieun Han, Ana Labrador, Johann Peiris and Leonard Yeo (in alphabetical order). Bryan Goh's insightful comments were very helpful to improve this essay. Comments for improvement and suggestions on comparative insights and theoretical perspective are welcome (

All errors and omissions are solely author's responsibility. [2], accessed June 13, 2022. [3], accessed June 14, 2022.

[4] Author's emphases.

For the source, see, accessed June 13, 2022. Author's translation.

[5] Nam-gu is the South District Office of Busan City which administratively oversees the cemetery. [6] It is approximately 2.5 million US dollars. [7], accessed June 13, 2022. Author's translation. [8], accessed June 13, 2022.



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