Traditional Korean Burial Items

Written by on May 20, 2011 in Arts

Over the years, cultures around the globe have developed many beliefs surrounding death. I’ve always found the beliefs and rituals surround the end of a life fascinating, so when I was given the opportunity to visit Musée Shuim near Buam-Dong, I leapt at the chance, since it is often referred to as the “Coffin Museum.”

Unfortunately, the private museum isn’t like most of its public counterparts. Namely this comes in the form of price. Admission and the private tour is W7,000 and only in Korean. For those that are really interested in traditional Korean burial practices, it is worth the trip, as the museum holds many unique artifacts that will ensure Korean culture enthusiasts have a great time. However, if exploring death rites from a few hundred years ago aren’t your cup of tea, Buam-Dong’s other sights would be more appropriate.

So what kinds of things can you learn about traditional Korean death culture? Many, but I’m going to focus on three. First, we’ll take a look at how death announcements were handled. In this modern age, when someone passes on, most often families pick up the telephone (and more commonly now mobile phones) and notify next of kin. From here, these extended family members make additional calls or send e-mail messages to other friends and acquaintances. Perhaps, they will even make an announcement on FaceBook.

These technologies were not available hundreds of years ago, so a simpler, more personal approach was undertaken. When someone died, a hand written note was created on parchment. This slip of paper included the deceased’s name, age, family information, and how they passed away. Family members would then distribute the letters to everyone in town and in neighboring villages. In some cases, they would send them across the country. At the time of burial, these slips would be collected and burned. The smoke from the fire was thought to ascend to the heavens with the body’s spirit and the ashes scattered. Musée Shuim’s collection of notices is quite rare, since the family elected not to burn the paper, but preserve them.

The second item that is displayed for visitors in the Yoyeo (요여). Yoyeo is a small bier that carries the soul of the deceased, ancestral tablet and things to be buried with the deceased. Yoyeo takes the lead in the funeral parade, ahead of the bier carrying the body of the deceased. This means that a soul, which was separated from the body upon death, is moving ahead of the body. When the body is buried in the mountains, the body remains in the mountains but the soul rides this bier, comes back to the house and remains in the mortuary. Yoyeo in the shape is similar to palanquins in general, but it is smaller and donned with lotus flower buds on the roof. The three sides of this bier are pasted with papers and the front side has an attachment of a small sliding door in box. Then the bier is topped with a roof and handrails surround the roof (Musée Shuim). The Yoyeo can still be seen to this day during the Ancestral Rite of the Joseon, Jongmyo Daejae.

The largest item on display is the Sangyeo, or funeral bier. A bier is a tool that carries the deceased to the funeral site. A bier is the last palanquin that the deceased rides in this world. In order to soothe the soul of the deceased, a bier is donned with decorations meaning flowers, dragons and dokkaebi, or goblins, which symbolize happiness and joy that the deceased could not enjoy during his or her life. The outside of a bier was made in the shape of a house. The bier is decorated with various things that represent lotus flowers, phoenix, dragons, Dongbangsak (a scholar of an ancient China who is believed to have lived for hundreds of years), satin tent and hanging lanterns, along with other belongings such as bangsangsi (a mask with four eyes, which a person that leads the funeral parade in representation of a goblin) and shovels. All of these play the role that leads the deceased to the other world. The decorations of a bier are the symbols that pray for the deceased to go up to the heaven. The decorations appear in the existence of various deities riding animals like birds that connect the heaven and the Earth, tigers and horses, and they bring the deceased away (Musée Shuim).

Those with a keen eye may have noticed that the Sangyeo is symmetrical. The while there is a front and back to the bier, the only visible difference is the color of dragon perched on top. This is important. Those from long ago, believed that dragons could bridge the two realms, traveling from the living world to the next. Yellow embodied female energy while blue/green embodied male energy. When the body was placed into the Sangyeo, it was carried from the direction of the corresponding dragon that matched the sex of the occupant. Thus, when a woman died, the Sangyeo was carried with the yellow dragon leading the way and vice versa.

For complete information on Musée Shuim, visit their website.

About the Author

Steve Miller

Steve Miller, the QiRanger, is Korea’s best-known travel video blogger-journalist. His videos have been viewed by millions and seen on media outlets in throughout the word. In addition to sharing his entertaining and informative videos, he writes about life abroad and releases a popular podcast. Steve appears regularly on international radio stations, talking about travel, Korean culture and East Asian news. He’s also appeared on Arirang Television sharing unique aspects of Korean life. You can follow Steve on Twitter @QiRanger or visit his site