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Foreigners' Cemetery in Seoul a Symbol of Western Influence
Yanghwajin's history represents diversity, contributions and hardships
Robert Neff (neff)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2009-01-19 10:58 (KST)   
This is the first in a series of articles about early Westerners in Korea by historian Robert Neff.  <Editor's Note>
Yanghwajin Foreigners' Cemetery
©2009 Robert Neff
Several years ago, Yanghwajin Foreigners' Cemetery was a silent sanctuary surrounded by the turbulence and noise of Seoul. Now, though, the cemetery has been forced to change through the politics of religion.

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Once, two churches peacefully coexisted in the chapel that overlooks the cemetery. One congregation was predominantly made up of foreigners and had been established nearly 124 years ago by Western missionaries, while the other was Korean and was established only four years ago to honor the Western missionaries buried in the cemetery.

Now, only the Korean church remains -- the other forced out. On Aug. 5, 2007, members of the Korea church seized the chapel and claimed it as their own. In their subsequent sermons they declared a historical moment in which they had reclaimed the cemetery and grounds from the "foreigners who had turned it into an extraterritorial zone."

The city government eventually declared that neither church was to use the chapel. The foreign church was forced to move from the site but the Korean church moved into buildings bordering the cemetery and continue to administer the grounds.

John Heron's stone - the first Westerner buried in the cemetery
©2009 Robert Neff
Prior to July 1890, foreigners from Seoul were buried at the Foreigners' Cemetery in Chemulpo (modern Incheon), but following the death of Dr. John W. Heron, an American missionary, the Korean government, bound by treaty, agreed to establish the Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery at its present location.
Gone, too, are the days when the cemetery was silent and deserted. Even on a snowy weekday, groups of religious tourists led by church guides, make their way along the brick paths and noisily marvel at the gravestones of Western missionaries while listening to brief lectures of the lives of these great men and women.

From these tours one might be led to believe that the cemetery is filled with nothing more than the graves of missionaries and their families, but that assumption would be wrong. Only about a third of the cemetery's inhabitants were missionaries, the rest were businessmen, advisors, soldiers, diplomats and their families.

British Consul Henry Bencraft Joly's stone
©2009 Robert Neff
Historian Donald Clark described the cemetery in his 1998 book, "The Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery at Yanghwajin: An Informal History," as a "small gray-walled enclosure" that "encompasses more of the history of the West in Korea than in any area of like size. Here are buried many of those who knew Korea as an undivided country before World War II. A walk along the cemetery paths is a tour back through the entire century of the Western impact on Korean life."

Looking over the Anglican section of the cemetery
©2009 Robert Neff
Perhaps one of the most famous non-missionaries, at least to Koreans, was Ernest T. Bethell. Bethell came to Korea in 1904 as a newspaper correspondent to cover the Russo-Japanese War. When Bethell's position was cut, instead of leaving Korea he elected to stay on and start his own newspapers: The Taehan Maeil Shinbo and the Korean Daily News. These newspapers were highly critical of the Japanese occupation of Korea and gained the hatred of Japanese government.

Pressured by the Japanese, Bethell was tried twice in the British consular court and spent three weeks in the British jail at Shanghai. Upon returning to Korea, he undauntedly declared, "My fight for Korea is heaven-ordained. I will work, regardless of my personal safety." Tragically, soon after this declaration, he became ill and died -- a victim of excessive drinking.

Ernest T. Bethell - an early journalist in Korea
©2009 Robert Neff
Even in death he was hated by the Japanese who erased the "anti-Japanese" epitaph from his gravestone. However, Bethell was not forgotten by the Koreans or his peers. In 1964, another monument was erected with the original epitaph by Korean journalists, and the present Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club proudly displays a huge photograph of him in their club.

Louise Brodessolles - a French dressmaker
©2009 Robert Neff
Unfortunately, not all of the graves have fared as well as Bethell's. Many gravestones were damaged during the Korean War and have yet to be restored: their surfaces cracked or pitted by bullets and shells. Some stones are missing, perhaps forgotten by their distant families or have no families to remember and replace them.

Some of the gravestones
©2009 Robert Neff
While it must be acknowledged that the church has been diligent in its care and protection of the cemetery it occupies, one must lament that as time fades many of the non-missionary inhabitants' lives and histories will soon be forgotten and lost. It is in the hope of preserving some of this history that I will do a series on the inhabitants of this cemetery. The cemetery that Clark says "represents the life of the foreign community in Korea, its purposes, its diverse people, the contributions they made, and the hardships they suffered."
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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