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.
One Sunday morning in August 2007, a newly established Korean church took over the cemetery chapel, forcing out the predominantly foreign congregation of the Seoul Union Church, many of its members allege. The church was co-founded by Underwood’s great-grandfather in 1886.
There have been recriminations, lawsuits over muddied ownership rights and rumors that the new caretakers, the 100th Anniversary Memorial Church, plan to exhume the graves of deceased they say do not belong here. (In an e-mail, church officials said they had no plans to disinter remains.)
“I don’t have the words to explain the extent of the damage this has caused to our church,” said the Rev. Prince Charles Oteng-Boateng, the Ghanaian-born pastor who since 2003 has headed Seoul Union Church, South Korea’s oldest predominantly foreign Protestant congregation.
“In a speech, their church leader likened their actions to the Chinese retaking Hong Kong from the British. It hurts to hear what they say, because it’s a lie.”
In the e-mail, Memorial Church officials said Pastor Lee Jae-chul “referred to the case of Hong Kong to emphasize the weight of our responsibility to protect the cemetery from further deterioration.”
The church says it was compelled to step in and end mismanagement of the cemetery, which it claims “had degenerated into a derelict graveyard.” The church has made improvements to the property and says on its website that it removed numerous truckloads of trash that had collected there for years.
As both sides square off, the cemetery is a retreat for schoolchildren and the occasional solitary adult wandering its paths.
“If you want to talk about Korean history and the expatriates who influenced it, this is the place,” said Robert Neff, a local historian and journalist. “There are missionaries, entrepreneurs, U.S. military people, diplomats, adventurers -- everyone is here.”
On a tour, he pointed to several notable graves, including that of American author Homer Hulbert, whose headstone proclaims, “I would rather be buried in Korea than in Westminster Abbey.”
There is also the grave of Ernest Bethell, a British journalist who died in 1909 after being imprisoned by the Japanese army for exposing abuses against Korean civilians. Years after soldiers erased a defiant challenge to the Imperial Army on Bethel’s grave marker, the words were replaced by Seoul Union Church officials.
There are black granite headstones memorializing the Underwood clan, including Peter Underwood’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather: missionary Horace Grant Underwood, founder of the YMCA in Korea, Saemunan Presbyterian Church and what became Yonsei University, one of the nation’s most prestigious colleges.
Nearby sits the grave of Barry Dorscher, a former U.S. military man and “Itaewon pool player” whose inclusion has raised the ire of the new caretakers, foreigners say.
“They’re upset the guy had a skill in billiards and that his buddies once put some of his trophies on the grave,” said Texas historian Donald Clark, who in 1998 published a book on the cemetery, where some of his relatives are buried.
“To the Korean evangelical Christians, that’s gambling. They associated his presence in the cemetery with desecration.”
Established in 1890, the cemetery has endured upheaval that included the Korean War in the early 1950s, when gun battles left still-visible scars on many tombstones.
For decades, the cemetery was managed by foreign diplomats, and later by a special association made up of Union Church members. Still, it was never clear who actually owned the land.
The stewardship fight dates to 1968, when the South Korean government passed a law requiring foreigners to register all land.
“For some reason,” Underwood says now, “the cemetery wasn’t registered. This little piece of land was forgotten.”
A decade later, the oversight surfaced when the government denied the Union Church’s plans to build a chapel next to the cemetery, saying the land wasn’t registered in its name.
The government said the Union Church could build its chapel only if a Korean national registered the land. The association later worked out a deal with the fledgling Council for the 100th Anniversary of the Korean Church to register the cemetery, allowing the Union Church to build its chapel.
In 2005, after the 100th Anniversary council had formed the Memorial Church, the church’s officials asked to share the chapel for their own services. Two years later, the two congregations faced off, with the larger Memorial Church blocking the way of Union Church congregants.
After first worshiping in a tent outside, the Union Church congregation moved to another location.
Memorial Church officials now use the chapel for services and office space. In an e-mail, officials said they are “devoted to preserving the historical and spiritual heritage of early missionaries that brought gospel to this land.”
Many foreigners want proof that the cemetery will be preserved as a historic site.
“That land is worth its weight in gold,” Clark said. “In the future, after all the descendants of the people buried there have died off or left Korea, what’s to stop these church people from selling that graveyard off to developers at enormous profit?”
Clark once thought he would join his missionary ancestors at the cemetery.
He has changed his mind.
Ju-min Park of The Times’ Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.