When I first met Eric Kim in New York, I asked him about his experience of photographing his grandfather’s funeral. We talked about death and my grandfather who was suffering from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Eric asked me – Isn’t the grandpa you know already gone?
I understood what he meant in my head but not emotionally.
I have much fond memories of my grandfather. He was a soldier – an army intelligence officer who’s been through Vietnam and rise and fall of military dictatorship. Yet he was never the stereotypical patriarch army man. He was never angry, never yelled, and had a great contagious laughter.
But when I visited him in the winter of 2019, my dad told me “to prepare myself and stay calm” as grandpa I knew, was no longer.
I thought I could photograph anything. To me, an optical viewfinder was a bulletproof shield that would keep me safe and detached.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I didn’t even dare reach for my camera. I didn’t want him to portray him that way – or rather, I couldn’t.
Then 2020 came. Continents on fire, wars brewing, pandemic on the rise. It was a perfect time to visit family.
On my third week of visit, I woke up around 4AM. I stepped out of the room to find my dad putting on a black tie. “Get dressed and get ready” he said.
“Grandpa passed away”
The funeral was at a funeral home attached to the hospital. For that reason, I wasn’t even allowed in because I travelled from abroad recently.
I was able to attend the burial. This wasn’t the first burial I’ve been to, but it was unlike what I’ve experienced before. Only family members were allowed due to the pandemic. Chartered bus was empty but for a dozen family members.
I carried the casket up the hills and said my goodbyes. Even though 6 men shared the load, we struggled. It wasn’t just the physical weight I felt though.
He escaped the north during the war and he was not allowed to go back. He still wanted to be buried as close as possible.
I’d like to think that he waited for me to come home so I can have a proper goodbye.
I hope he found peace. I miss him dearly.