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On Walkabout at: Yanghwajin Foreigners Cemetery, South Korea

In honor of Halloween weekend and the fact that my older brother has a hobby of photographing cemeteries, here is a travelog for everyone from one of the most famous cemeteries in South Korea.  For those not familiar Korea, foreigners from western nations do not have a long history in Korea.  The late 19th century was the beginning of the opening of Korea to western nations with the first arrivals being mostly Christian missionaries.  As time went by more diplomats, businessmen, and military personnel eventually found their to South Korea.  With its growing expat population, a place was needed to bury those who happened to pass away while living in Korea and Yanghwajin Foreigners Cemetery became this place:

The cemetery was founded in 1890 as place to bury these first foreign missionaries that were unfortunate enough to die while in Korea.  The cemetery was established on the property of a protestant church on a small hill that overlooks the scenic Han River that flows through the middle of Seoul:

In 1890 this location was located on the outskirts of Seoul, but the city’s unbelievable growth since the devastation of the Korean War 60 years ago has caused the cemetery to be completely surrounded by highways and buildings.  However, when visiting the cemetery it is still a tranquil and peaceful place to visit despite the hustle and bustle of the city of 12 million people that surrounds it.

The cemetery is also a great place to look into Korea’s past because some of these early missionaries are to this day some of the most famous foreigners to ever step foot in Korea. One of the recognizable missionareis is Henry Appenzeller:

Appenzeller is a Methodist who became one of the two first missionaries to enter Korea in 1885.  He established the country’s first Methodist church along with opening the predecessor to the Pai Chai University that continues to operate to this day in the city Daejon.  Appenzeller died at the age of 44 when he tried to save a drowning Korean girl while visiting the port city of Mokpo.  He was buried at Yanghwajin in 1902.

Another missionary of note is the “fighting missionary” William Shaw:

Shaw was born in 1922 in the current North Korean capitol of Pyongyang in 1922 to missionary parents.  At the time the Japanese colonial government was in charge of Korea and as the US and Japan went to war in World War II, a number of missionaries to include the Shaw’s were expelled from Korea.  After returning to the US William Shaw completed college, married, and joined the US Navy in 1943.  Shaw served a PT boat officer for the last two years of the war in the European theater.  After World War II Shaw eventually made his way back to Korea in 1948 to work with other US Navy officers to establish the Korean Naval Academy at Chinhae.

Shaw and his family returned to the US in 1949 where Shaw left the Navy and enrolled in a doctorate program at Harvard University in East Asian studies.  However, the Korean War broke out in 1950 and Shaw decided to rejoin the Navy and fight in the war.  Being fluent in Korean, Shaw served on the staff on General Douglas MacArthur as an intelligence officer.  He became a close advisor to General MacArthur during the successful execution of the Incheon Landing Operation that changed the course of the Korean War.  Despite the successful completion of the landing operation Shaw volunteered to lead an intelligence gathering mission behind enemy lines in the effort to recapture Seoul following the landing.  It was during this mission behind enemy lines that Shaw was killed on September 22, 1950.

Some of the missionaries did more then just spread the words of the Bible, some like George Rue also served as doctors:

Rue first went to Korea in 1930 and served as a doctor during the Japanese occupation, World War II, and the Korean War.  During all these tragic events Rue was able to provide his medical services to the Korean population while also opening a number of hospitals and orphanages on the peninsula.

As distinguised as the other missionaries are, without a doubt the most famous missionary buried at Yanghwajin is Horace Underwood:

Underwood was also one of the first missionaries to enter Korea when he arrived on the peninsula in 1885.  These missionaries were able to enter Korea in 1885 because of the Treaty of Amity & Trade that was signed between the US government and the King of the Joseon Kingdom of Korea in 1882.  Underwood ultimately spent 31 years as a missionary in Korea and was responsible for writing one of the first English-Korean dictionaries in 1890.  Pretty remarkable when you think about it because he had only been in country for 5 years.  Underwood’s most famous achievement though is the founding of one of the most prestigious colleges in all of Korea, Yonsei University.

Underwood passed away in 1916, but his family continued to be an important part of the missionary community in Korea long after his death.  The Underwood name is extremely respected within Korea.  As I walked through the cemetery there was a number of Korean church groups receiving organized tours around the cemetery to learn about their nation’s missionary past, especially to see the grave of Horace Underwood:

You can read more about the missionaries buried Yanghwajin here.

Besides the missionaries some other foreigners that would end up being buried in Yanghwajin were ex-servicemember that married local Korean women and made Korea there permanent home:

Some of these former soldiers served in both World War II and the Korean War:

Others were killed in Vietnam, but yet still had their remains buried in Korea:

Speaking of the Korean War, like any many other areas in Korea damage from this tragic war is still visible on some of the grave stones at Yanghwajin:

Another reminder of Korea’s tragic past is the number of gravestones that have Japanese inscriptions on them:

A lot of people outside of Korea don’t realize that the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Imperial Japanese prior to World War II.  In fact Korea had been annexed by the Japanese all the way back in 1910 and the country did not regain their independence until the end of World War II in 1945.  During the occupation the Japanese tried to discourage the use of the Korean language and force the Koreans to speak and write Japanese.  This attempt to culturally assimilate the Koreans is still evident on some of the gravestones, like the one above at Yanghwajin.

Probably the most sobering area of Yanghwajin is the area where young babies are buried:

As you can see the cemetery is quite a historic reminder of Korea’s past.  However, this doesn’t mean some in Korea do not want bulldoze over this past, literally:

Those visiting the cemetery’s 14,000 square meters likely appreciate the sacrifice of those early missionaries, but they may be unaware that a present day conflict is underway between two Protestant churches one foreign and one Korean over the right to manage the cemetery and affiliated properties.
The foreign congregation, Seoul Union Church, with 150 members, claims that its Korean neighbors in the 2,000-strong 100th Anniversary Memorial Church are trying to push it out of a chapel on the cemetery grounds, which the union church has occupied since 1986 and has shared with the memorial church since 2005.Seoul Union, founded in 1885, was the first Protestant church in Korea and its congregation has included some of the most venerable foreign families in the country. Many of its former members are buried in the cemetery. It worries that a demand by the memorial church that it change its service time from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. is a disguised attempt to displace it from the cemetery and the chapel. The deadline for the schedule change is Sunday, Aug. 5.
The situation has become so bitter that it seems headed for court. Both sides accuse the other of mismanaging the cemetery, while Seoul Union leaders say a long-standing agreement to leave the property under the effective control of the foreign church is being violated.
Union church member John Linton, a prominent Seoul doctor whose missionary family has been in Korea for more than a century, says the prospects for resolution are bleak. “We think this is a kind of war,” he said.

Rev. Prince C. Oteng-Boateng, the current pastor of the union church, recently sent a letter to Korean church leaders asking for help. The pastor requested supporters to attend the morning service at union church on Aug. 5 and block any physical coercion by the Korean church.  [Joong Ang Ilbo]

Make sure to read the rest of the article to include how the 100th Anniversary Memorial Church is using the cemetery as a parking lot. This bitter war only got worse when 100th Anniversary Memorial Church threatened to intern bodies from the cemetery:

In an interview with The Korea Herald, Kim Yong-nam, who identified himself as administrator to the Church and Yangwhajin, supported the claim that those who were unsuitable for the cemetery such as Koreans, a foreigner he described as an “Itaewon pool player,” and members of the U.S. military – who chose to be buried at the cemetery along with their families – would be removed at some time in the future.  [Korea Herald]

The effort to expel the memory of the foreign expats buried at Yanghwajin is the reason why the Memorial Church changed the name of the cemetery to the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery:

Many people believe that the attempts to disintern graves from the cemetery was because the Memorial Church wanted to free up cemetery land to sell to developers at an enormous profit.  The 100th Anniversary Memorial Church has since their take over of the cemetery two years ago has been unable to make good on their threats to disintern graves at Yanghwajin and in fact this fight has now received recent media attention in the LA times of all places:


For years, on the anniversary of his wife’s death in 2000, Peter Underwood sought the solace of the tiny hillside cemetery not far from this city’s bustling downtown.He laid flowers at her grave site and paid his respects to four generations of his family who are buried here — mostly Western missionaries who first arrived in Korea more than a century ago. There’s even a plot for Underwood himself.

But the 54-year-old consultant no longer visits this sanctuary. He says he feels harassed here — shadowed by the new stewards of a cemetery that offers a hallowed history lesson in Korea’s expatriate past.

“I have visited the cemetery since I was a kid. It’s part of my family’s heritage,” said Underwood, who came to Seoul as an infant. “But I can’t face going there now. It no longer gives me peace.”

The Yanghwajin Foreigners’ Cemetery lies at the center of a bitter controversy between two competing churches as well as the descendants of the 600 or so people buried here.  [LA Times]

Make sure to read the rest, but this continuing publicity will probably ensure that the foreigners buried at the cemetery are not thrown out like unwanted garbage like the members of the Memorial Church apparently seem to think.

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