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.

Funerary procession. 1900 – 1930.
Methodist Missions in Korea between 1890 and late 1920.
Sedan shrine in front of Pyong Yang stone pillars
at Kwangbop temple. 1880.
Photo credit: Mowry Eli
Waiting for the funeral ceremony. The spirit shrine & the bier. Photo collection: National Museum of Korea.
Bier Procession. After the end of the 19th century. Kim Jungeun (Pen name : Gisan, Dates Unknown). National Folk Museum of Korea.
A picture illustrating a bier procession heading to a burial site.
Picture illustrating a “Yo Yeo” ancestor shrine being carry out during a funeral procession.
Korean bier during the Joseon dynasty.
Collection: National Folk Museum of Korea, Seoul.
Sancheong Jeonju Choi Clan’s Goryeong House Bier. Collection: National Folk Museum of Korea, Seoul.
Korean bier. This is a bier used by Dadae-dong residents. H. 121cm, W. 224cm, D. 90cm.
Collection: Busan Metropolitan city Museum, Korea.

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.

” YONG YO” Palanquin for transporting ancestral tablets. Collection national Palace Museum of Korea. Seoul.
YONG YO
Korean ancestor shrine. Paulownia wood. Small double doors on the front and on each side. Carved flower motif in the front & a Taoist T’aeguk motif on the back. Kyonggi province. Korea.

Mid 19th century.
H. 58cm, W. 54cm, D. 60cm. Collection “ANTIKASIA”.
YONG YO
Ancestor shrine
Dark stain on pine wood. Kyonggi province. Korea.

Late 19th century.
H. 85cm, W. 65cm, D. 80cm.
Collection “ANTIKASIA”.
YONG YO.
Wood (elm) and paper.
Late 19th century.
YONG YO
Funerary sedan chair. Wood and paper.
19th century. Collection of the Brooklyn Museum. USA
A Korean softwood Shrine. “Yong Yo”.
19th/20th Century
The square-form structure with overhanging domed roof and surrounding gallery. Height 34 inches, width 28 inches..
Auction: Doyle New YORK. November 22, 2022.
Funerary sedan chair. Yong Yo.
H. 78cm, W. 64,5cm, D. 72cm.
Collection: Busan Metropolitan City Museum, Korea.
Funerary sedan chair. Yong Yo. H. 82cm, W. 185cm, D. 56,5cm. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Funerary sedan chair. Yong Yo.
H. 81,5cm, W. 47,2cm, D. 63,8cm.
Collection: Andong City Folk Museum, Korea.
Funerary sedan chair. Yong Yo.
H. 90,7cm, W. 63,5cm, D. 68cm.
Collection: Andong City Folk Museum, Korea.
불연 Palanquin used for funerals ceremonies. H. 89cm, W. 88cm, D. 86cm.
Collection: NAMGARAM MUSEUM. Jinju-si, Gyeongsangnam-do
불연 Palanquin used for funerals ceremonies. H. 89cm, W. 86cm, D. 88cm.
Collection: NAMGARAM MUSEUM. Jinju-si, Gyeongsangnam-do
YONG YO
Funerary sedan chair.
H. 93cm, W. 72cm, D. 72cm.
Private collection.

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.

YONG YO. Sedan chair.
The Andong Folk Museum. Taegu. This miniature sedan shrine had long poles running through the holes in the base so it could be carried on the shoulders of men. It mimics the style and shape of palanquins used for transport of aristocratic women, but its small size indicates that it was used in funeral processions.
YONG YO.
Jogyeongmyo Shrine. Jeonggak.
It would have held an inscribed tablet believed to represent the spirit of the deceased. The tablet accompanied the coffin to the burial site, then was taken back to the family home, where it was installed and worshipped regularly by surviving family members. As funeral rites became simpler in modern times, these miniature palanquins fell out of favor.

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.

Gamsil. Ancestor shrine. Stained wood and red lacquer. yellow brass fittings. Late 19th century. H. 62cm, W. 42,2cm, D. 27,3cm
Consisting of a body a pedestal and a roof, this tabernacle has two compartments inside, indicating that two spirits where enshrined. Collection: National Museum of Korea, Seoul.
Gamsil.
H. 60,8 cm, W. 55,2 cm, D. 35,8 cm.
Collection: National Museum of Korea, Seoul.
GAMSIL. Paulownia and pine wood.
Placed on altar table for ancestor ceremony.

LEFT: H. 187cm, W. 138cm, D. 45cm.
RIGHT: H. 86cm, W. 90cm, D. 39cm.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine. H. 50cm W. 125cm.
A space created to enshrine statues & tablets.
Collection: Hanbat Education Museum, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine. H. 56,7cm, W. 87,8cm, D. 50,7cm. Collection: Yeongcheon History Museum, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine. H. 67cm, W. 50,3cm, D. 30cm. Collection: Eunpyeong History Hanok Museum, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine. H. 56cm, W. 43,5cm, D. 27,5cm, Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine. Collection: Gyeonggi Provincial Museum, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine.
H. 49cm, W. 72cm, D. 23,5cm.
Collection: Andong City Folk Museum, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine. H. 45cm, W. 61cm, D. 34cm. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine.
H. 54cm, W. 72cm, D. 30cm.
Collection: Jeonju University, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine.
H. 56cm, W. 83cm, D. 25cm.
Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine. H. 65cm, W. 79cm, D. 41,5cm. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine.
H. 60,7cm, W. 37,3cm, D. 19,3cm.
Collection: National Palace Museum, Seoul.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine.
H. 72,5cm, W. 42,4cm, D. 23,5cm.
Collection: Seoul National University Museum.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine.
Collection: Suwon Hwaseong fortress Museum, Korea.
Gamsil. Korean ancestor shrine.
H. 54cm, W. 72cm, D. 30cm.
Collection: Jeonju University, Korea.
Gamsil. Pine wood. Width 48.5cm, Depth 21.0cm, H. 26cm, W. 48,5cm, D. 21cm. Collection: Andong City Folk Museum.
Gamsil. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Gamsil. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Gamsil. Black & red lacquer on wood.
H. 61,1cm, W. 51cm, D. 33,9cm.
Collection: Andong City Folk Museum.
Gamsil. H. 112cm, W. 115,5cm, D. 54cm..
Collection: Gwangju Metropolitan City Folk Museum.
Gamsil. H. 50,7cm, W. 87,8cm, D. 56.7cm. Collection: Yeongcheon History Museum
Photos left & Right: Gamsil. H. 52cm, W. 57cm, D. 23cm.
Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Gamsil. H. 51cm, W. 104cm, D. 23cm. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Gamsil – Ancestor shrine. H. 77cm, W. 217cm, D. 33cm. Collection: National Folk Museum Seoul.
Photo left & right. Carved Lacquered Wood ‘Pavilion’-Form Confucian Altar. Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), 19th century. Wood with lacquer.
105,4 x 26,7 x 21,6cm. Roof. 15,2 x 36,8 x 27,9cm.
Collection: Harn Museum of Art. Gainesville, Florida. USA.


Each side carved with Buddhist ‘man’ symbol, Confucian ‘eumyang’ symbol, and Daoist ‘Directions’ symbol, the front set with hinged doors. Original pigment remaining, legs later replaced, roof with later hinge.

ANCESTOR ALTAR CHAIR – KYO YI or GYO UI 영좌교의 (靈座交椅)

SPIRIT HOUSE.
Gammoyeojaedo (Spirit House), 18th century
Artist not identified, Korea. Ink and colors on paper.
PEM, Peabody Essex Museum.
Ancestor rites.

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.

교의도(交椅圖).
A painting depicting the ritual of attending a ancestral rite during a ancestral rite. 2-wide flat form. Paper coloring. Canvas.
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI. Cleveland Museum. USA
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI
Ginkgo wood. Gyeonggi province, Korea.
This spirit altar chair was placed near the altar table at home where a member of the family had recently died. Pieces of garments were placed on it and were believed to contain the dead spirits.
Late 19th century.
H. 133cm, W. 57cm, D. 30cm.

Collection ANTIKASIA
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI. Cleveland Museum. USA

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.

Ancestor worship table preparation
Ancestor rites. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.

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.

Spirit house display at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Furniture set for an ancestor worship ceremony
LEFT. Spirit House
철제 은입사 감실 (鐵製銀入絲龕室)
Late 1800s. Iron inlaid with silver and copper decoration
H. 35cm, W. 30cm, D. 14 cm.

TOP. Folding Table (Che-Sang) for Memorial Service
제사상 (祭床). 1900.
H. 97,5cm, W. 116cm, D. 82,5 cm
. Both items Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Korean high table 향안. It is a table on which an incense burner is placed during ancestral rites. 
It was placed in front of the ancestral rites table when enshrining divine tablets, ancestral tablets, and portraits.

Collection National Museum of Korea.
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI.
H. 114,6cm W. 72,5cm, D. 41,5cm.
Collection: Namyangju History Museum, Korea.

KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI.
Very unusual ancestor shrine on low legs. This item was placed on top of a furniture or altar table.  Intricate back design.
Mid 19th century. H. 46cm, W. 46cm, D. 36cm.
Collection ANTIKASIA
Furniture set for an ancestor worship ceremony.
Korean ancestor altar chair – Kyo Yi. Collection: National Folk Museum of Korea, Seoul.
Painting ancestor worship 제사.
1885 – 1910. Ink and color. Korea.
120cm x 68cm. Royal Ontario Museum, Canada.
Korean ancestor altar chair – Kyo Yi.
H. 62,5cm, W. 43,5cm, D. 32,4cm.
Collection of the National Folk Museum of Korea.
Food display for traditional ceremony at a korea house in the Namsangol Hanok Village, Seoul, South Korea.
Namsangol Hanok Village
Ritual stand for incense burner. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI – 교의
H. 127cm, W. 54cm, D. 36,8cm.
Collection: Sangju Museum, Korea.
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI – 교의
H. 128,8cm, W. 50,5cm, D. 32,5cm.
Collection: Sangju Museum, Korea.
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI -교의
H. 119cm, W. 41cm, D. 25,5cm.
Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI -교의
H. 148cm, W. 50cm, D. 31,5cm. Collection: National Folk Museum.
Photos left & right. KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI – 교의. Chair used for ancestor worship. Persimmon wood.
H. 123,5cm, 63,2×37,3cm. Collection: National Museum of Korea.
This type of chair was traditionally used to hold the mortuary tablet during sacrificial offering rituals or funerals. The black lacquered chair features inscriptions of mountains, clouds, and a rising sun on its top rail, along with openwork grass and flower designs on its lower part. Each corner of the back support of the chair is intricately crafted to resemble scrolling vines. Additionally, both sides and the rear part of the rack, where the mortuary tablet used to be placed, are adorned with two and three holes, resembling elephant eyes.
Korean folding table (Che-Sang) for Memorial Service 제사상
H. 82cm, W. 117cm, D. 77,5cm. Collection: Sangju Museum, Korea.
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI – 교의 (3 photos).
H. 130cm, W. 48cm, D. 30,5cm.
Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul, Korea.
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI – 교의 (3 photos). H. 122cm, W. 59cm, D. 38cm. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
KOREAN ANCESTOR ALTAR – KYO YI – 교의 Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.
Korean table (Che-Sang) for Memorial Service 제사상
H. 87cm, W. 107cm, D. 68,5cm. Collection: National Folk Museum, Seoul.

RELIGIOUS ARTIFACTS.
Niche for Buddha image with hanging board. Painted wood.
H. 86cm, W. 62,5cm.
Late Joseon dynasty.

“Kokdu” or 목우(木偶)

Amongst the accessories used in burial ceremonies were little wooden dolls called “Kokdu” – 꼭두 or “Mok-woo”, “Mok-sang”, “Mook-woo-in” – 목우(木偶)

Dolls used to alleviate the deceased’s regrets for unfulfilled desires in life is referred to as a kkokdu. Originally employed as a surrogate for performing tasks, its usage expanded to include bier decoration, leading to a variety of types.

The human kokdu adorning the bier typically portray a child, a sage, a scholar, or a clown. Similar to a child making offerings to Buddha, it wholeheartedly serves the departed and engages in playful activities to alleviate any boredom or fear during the journey, such as dancing and performing tricks. In this context, Kokdu demonstrates that death is not solely viewed as a source of sadness but as a desire to guide the deceased to a better place.

Photo courtesy of the Kokdu Museum. 122, Dongsung-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul    
Korean funeral bier sangyeo
The kokdu figures were made by groups of artisans who produced the complete funeral bier together. If they received a request from another province, they would move to that area for several months to fulfill the request.

Here are some samples from the Collection of the National Folk Museum in Seoul.

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