Empress Myeongseong's Funeral procession: Part 3 - Korea Times
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Empress Myeongseong's Funeral procession: Part 3

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Deoksu Palace circa 1910-20   Robert Neff Collection
Deoksu Palace circa 1910-20 Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

On Nov. 22, 1897, Empress Myeongseong was finally laid to rest in her tomb just outside of Seoul. The Independent ― a newspaper published in Seoul ― declared that the funeral was a "remarkable event [that] will never be forgotten by those who took part in it in any capacity." It added, "We are glad the great function passed off without any hitch and that the weather was so favorable."

The newspaper, however, was not quite telling the truth. There had been many hitches both before and during the event.

Shortly after her murder, the spirit of the empress was said to have grown restless and appeared in the room where her remains were kept. Two servants were literally frightened to death ― at least according to one newspaper account.

When her remains were moved to Deoksu Palace in September 1896, there were further fatal incidents. A pallbearer was crushed while carrying the hearse and a small boy was killed as the procession passed the front of the palace. A couple of days later, the main beam of the palace's front gate fell and seriously injured a workman.

Finding a suitable site for her tomb also caused a great deal of trouble and, undoubtedly, was expensive. It seems that when the location and date were finally settled upon, no one consulted with Mother Nature. The road leading from the East Gate to the Imperial Tomb was washed away by heavy rains and, according to The Independent, "at many points no bridges could be seen."

Near the assassination site of the Korean empress in Gyeongbok Palace, circa 1908   Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
Near the assassination site of the Korean empress in Gyeongbok Palace, circa 1908 Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

Yun Chi-ho, was especially critical of the government's efforts and the amount of corruption involved in the funeral.

"Several hundreds of acres were bought around the Royal Grave and ¥20,000.00 were spent in planting trees thereon, in the two years past. Not a single tree is alive now. Next Spring the rascals will again squeeze a large amount of money out under the same pretext of planting trees which never live!"

There was also a great deal of petty jealousy. A little over a week before the funeral, The Independent reported:

"The Prime Minister, Sim Suntak, has been appointed Scrubber of the Coffin of Her Majesty... It may be a great honor for Mr. Sim to scrub the Imperial coffin, but some people doubt whether he can do it thoroughly. He is too feeble to use a brush and towel effectively."

For additional protection ― and possibly to give the event a grander appearance ― additional soldiers were brought in from the provinces. According to The Independent, the regents in Hwanghae, Ganghwa Island, and Cheongju each sent 100 soldiers while Pyongyang was ordered to send 200.

An American visitor and possibly his guide at the
An American visitor and possibly his guide at the "Queen's grave" in 1922 Robert Neff Collection
Yun gives a different description of the soldiers brought in temporarily for the funeral:

"Two thousand coolies [laborers] have been hired at the rate of 2 for a dollar, for the occasion under the name of ["reserves"]. These coolies, dressed in tight trousers open wide where they ought to be closed, armed with rusty rifles which they used as sticks, were one of the innumerable evidences of the rottenness of the present administration."

Apparently there were no foreign guests in the palace during the final preparations, so we are forced to rely heavily upon Yun's observations, which were recalled carefully in his diary ― considering it was his own private diary, he wrote truthfully and with very little political tact.

"While the coffin was being taken out of the bier, a eunuch openly "sleeved" the fruits which were placed in front of the coffin. It maddened me to see this sacrilegious proceeding and if I had authority I would have given the rascal a lesson not to be easily forgotten."

This was not the only food-related issue that infuriated him.

"Food was plentiful. Hundreds of tickets were given out to persons who had no business to be fed by the King. I could easily have gotten a meal ticket but, as I had no connection with service, I preferred to go hungry."

It is interesting that Yun refers to the Korean monarch as king ― as Gojong was made emperor about five weeks earlier.

Yun was not the only disgruntled witness to the funeral procession ― there was also Horace N. Allen, the American minister to Korea. Years later, in his books and memoirs, Allen's description of the event were generally neutral. But in his immediate report to the State Department he was less than tactful.

First he complained about having to go to the palace just before dawn where he endured "a long and tedious wait in the cold" as he and the other foreign representatives watched the start of the funeral procession and paid their respects to the emperor. There was obviously tension in the air ― especially in regards to the Japanese representative. Allen explained:

"As the Korean Government had sent a Special Envoy to be present at the funeral of the Dowager Empress of Japan last year, the Japanese Government appointed their Minister to Korea to represent them officially at this funeral as Special Envoy."

An American visitor to the
An American visitor to the "Queen's grave" in 1922 Robert Neff Collection

By agreement, the foreign representatives were to meet at 2 p.m. at the Foreign Office and join Emperor Gojong's procession to the tomb. But when they arrived, they discovered that the procession had already departed. According to Allen, the emperor, "feeling chagrinned at the long delay he had caused us in the morning, started off an hour earlier so as to be on time." Allen chose to look at it as a blessing as "not knowing of this change we were spared the necessity of making a part of the procession."

As for the accommodations at the tomb, The Independent reported that each diplomat was "provided with newly finished rooms with the necessary furniture" and every effort was made to ensure they were comfortable. Allen reported that the diplomats "were quartered in neat little 8x8 foot paper rooms, each containing a narrow cot and each room having to do duty for four persons."

As for the fine dinner at the tomb, which Allen described in his book as being "elaborate," in his report seems to have been a diplomatic disaster.

"We were served with dinner, at which occasion, owing to the lack of order and arrangement, the Japanese Envoy was placed in such an undignified position that he had to complain of it."

The Japanese envoy was not the only bone of contention at the funeral ― so too were the Russian soldiers. At the palace, Yun noted that the emperor was "guarded by a number of Russian soldiers" and the Korean soldiers on guard were ordered to "turn around, facing the wall ― lest they might see the Imperial face!"

Allen added that "one notable feature of the [funeral] was that four Russian non-commissioned officers constantly remained by His Majesty's chair and no one was allowed to approach without permission."

The main gate of Deoksu Palace, circa 1906   Robert Neff Collection
The main gate of Deoksu Palace, circa 1906 Robert Neff Collection

After the coffin was lowered into the tomb, the diplomats had a final audience with the emperor at about 10 a.m. (Monday) at which point Allen made his "excuses" and returned home early ― the other diplomats and the Imperial family returned to Seoul later that afternoon.

Allen summed up the event as being "a funeral in her honor than of her remains, as I understand that only one of the small bones of the finger was rescued from the fire in which her murderers attempted to hide their guilt. Having been given the posthumous title of Empress, she was buried with Imperial ceremonies."

Yun was disgusted with the entire event.

"Two years and untold amount of money have been wasted in the elaborate preparations for this occasion. The disorder and confusion which reigned supreme in the procession sickened me. Puerility, emptiness and falsehood in every detail of the program which should have been characterized by orderliness and solemnity."

Allen echoed Yun's sentiment when he wrote: "[The funeral] showed lavish display of money, but to foreigners the features would seem chiefly to be grotesqueness and lack of order."

In the days following the funeral, Yun's diary was neglected and Allen spent the next couple of days confined to his bed ― "quite ill from exposure."

So, as we can see by the above, The Independent's claim that "the great function passed off without any hitch and that the weather was so favorable" was fake news. The only part of that statement that was true was the funeral enjoyed good weather. It is interesting to note that on the following day ― Tuesday ― the weather changed and was miserably cold and rainy for the next week.

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books including, Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.

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