THE PATH TO AFTERLIFE – or discovering Koreans through their furniture.
This post is the first in a series of articles related to a study of the Korean people through their arts, particularly their furniture.
Most of the antique Korean furniture available today is known as “Joseon” furniture. The Joseon dynasty, also transcribed as Chosŏn or Chosun, in Korean: 대조선국, was the last dynastic kingdom of Korea, lasting for approximately five centuries. Buddhism was abolished, and strict adherence to Confucianism principles was imposed. This influence is clearly visible in Korean ancestor worship and the use of furniture for such occasions.
THE PATH TO AFTERLIFE – ANCESTOR WORSHIP
“PAN GOK” is the process of bringing back the spirit of a deceased person by carrying a small spirit bier called “YO YEO” during the funeral to the burial site and then back home along the same route.
“YO YEO“, also known as “YONG YO” or “SADANG“, is the ancestor shrine or funerary sedan chair or palanquin in which the spirit of the ancestor is preserved. Most of these shrines have now vanished.
After the “TAESANG” ceremony, which occurs 2 years after the death, the mourning shrine is dismantled, and the mortuary tablet is transferred to the family shrine known as “Gamsil“, which houses the mortuary tablets of ancestors from previous generations.
Today, “Yong Yo” is extremely rare and is no longer in use.
Traditional funerals in rural Korea were quite distinct from what you see today; they were more like ceremonies. There were two primary biers: the coffin bier, known as “SANG YEO“, and the soul bier, “YO YEO“. It is assumed that these came in different sizes and styles depending on the person’s social status and wealth.
“Gamsil“, also called “Shinjujang“, is a place where the spirits of ancestors are enshrined. Many of them are designed in the shape of a house.
ANCESTOR ALTAR CHAIR – KYO YI or GYO UI 영좌교의 (靈座交椅)
The belief in two types of souls, the spiritual and the corporeal, embodied the central concept of ancestral worship in traditional Korea.
While the corporeal soul is believed to reside in the tomb, the spiritual soul, in the spirit house, watches over their descendants.
During the Joseon dynasty, many homes had a memorial shrine for preparing and conducting ancestral rites. Positioned atop a tall chair, this miniature structure, known as the spirit house, served as a temporary residence for visiting ancestral spirits.
The memorial tablet of the deceased and the incense burner were positioned on the seat. On certain occasions, a variety of delicacies such as fruits, rice, meat, and wine would be set on the table in front to honor the spiritual guests.
During the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), Neo-Confucianism served as the dominant ideology. People conducted rituals on the birth and death anniversaries of ancestors up to five generations back, as well as on major holidays such as the Lunar New Year and Chuseok (Harvest Moon Festival). Court ancestral rites formed the foundation of Joseon political life and were carried out on a grand scale, including musical and dance performances. A prominent feature throughout these ceremonies was a table laden with food and drink offerings, presented on jegi, or ritual objects.
There were many ancestor worship ceremonies. We will mention one known as “Jesa“.
“Jesa” (제사) in Korean was and still is a commonly practiced ceremony, typically held on the anniversary of the ancestor’s death.