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Seoul Foreigner's Cemetery

On this bluff lies more than a century of history


by Patrick Fok
April 03, 2002 JoongAng Ilbo English Edition

The Reverend Julian Holdsworth walks past the tombstone of a Russian missionary. The name on the monument is scarred by gunshots from the Korean War, making Mr. Holdsworth pause and reflect.

"These monuments give me a sense of history, as the West is rapidly losing its sense of connection to the past," says the 38-year-old pastor from Britain. He continues along the cemetery's narrow, winding trail. Behind him lie hundreds of gravestones spread out on a gentle hill.

About 510 of the graves in the Foreigners Cemetery Park contain the remains of foreign missionaries and their family members, hailing from 13 countries. Also buried in the cemetery are businessmen, diplomats and soldiers.

The park occupies a bluff just north of the Han River in Hapjeong-dong, and is next to Seoul Union Church. "We are very fortunate because it is one of the prettier parks in Seoul," Mr. Holdsworth says.

But the park has witnessed a century of oppression, war and political instability, along with the changes Western missionaries have made on Korean life. It is also home to Korea's oldest foreign church community.

Mr. Holdsworth came to Seoul Union Church in November 2000 for a three-year posting. "I am excited at the fact that this church is so significant in Korean history," he says.

The Protestant community that calls the church home held its first service in Korea in 1885 at the home of Dr. Horace Allen, Korea's first Protestant missionary physician. In August 1986, the congregation got its latest home when the Seoul Union Church was completed.

The site of the graveyard and church, Yanghwajin, is significant. It was there that a number of French Catholic missionaries were put to death in 1839. And Korean Catholics were felled by a mass execution on the nearby riverbank 27 years later.

The cemetery was organized in July 1890 when the Korean government, after Dr. Allen pulled some strings, granted a plot of land for the grave of John Heron, a Presbyterian missionary. Over the next few decades the cemetery grew slowly. At the outset of the Korean War in 1950, a teenager, Lee Kang-pil, became the cemetery's caretaker when the first caretaker died. From his first day, Mr. Lee, now 66, developed a strong bond with the place and the people buried there.

Mr. Lee, a father of two, says he has never taken a holiday. When he's sick, his wife helps him take care of the park. The first thing he does when he enters the park every morning is greet the dead missionaries. "Every day I say 'Good morning,' to each of them," he says, then clears some wilted flowers from the gravesite of Homer Hulbert, an American who taught English to Korea's second-to-last king, Gojong. Mr. Hulbert's gravestone describes him as a "man of vision and friend of Korea," and he left a quote: "I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey."

Mr. Lee says, "I am very proud that more than 30 foreign missionaries who, before dying overseas, insisted on being buried here."

The park opens daily at 9 a.m. Mr. Lee said he gladly waits for the last visitor to leave at night before he closes the gate. Last year some 35,000 visitors came to the park.

To get to the Foreigners Cemetery Park, take subway line No. 2 or No. 6 to Hapjeong Station and go out exit 7. Walk straight, cross two small streets, then you'll see a sign for the park with an arrow. Go south down a narrow lane for about 50 meters, and the park will be on your right.



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