(Do it in Andong #1) Ancient Funeral Rituals and Traditions

published by Devon Furbush

Up until recently I never really learned about traditional Korean funerals. I’m familiar with underground stone tombs, but outside of that, I didn’t know any rituals or customs. Out in Andong, I got the chance to visit the Folk Museum and learn exactly how traditional funerals were carried out, what happened to the deceased person’s body, and what rituals were done at the deceased person’s home. 

The first step of shrouding was to prepare three bowls of perfumed water. This special mix of boiled water and juniper was used to wash the corpse. Afterward, it was then covered with a special thin bedsheet. After a while, the it was removed and the corpse’s hair, fingernails, and toenails were trimmed. The trimmings were then placed in a small pouch that was put in the casket with the body. Next, the body was clothed in a special outfit for the dead which was usually white and thin. This process of shrouding was called ‘seup.’

The next step was to put soaked rice into the mouth using chopsticks made from willow trees. A marble and three brass coins were also placed into the mouth. This process was called ‘ban-ham’. When the ban-ham was completed, the corpse’s mouth and nose were blocked with sleeved silk or cottonweed, and the eyes were forced shut to look peaceful. Weaved silk cloth was used to block the ears and a bandana was wrapped around the head while a special piece of clothing hung in Buddhist temples covered the face. This part was called ‘yeom.’

The hands were then bound together using rope or string with the thumbs hanging freely to resemble a handshake. The next step, called ‘bo-gong’, was where any other empty places, like the back of the neck, were filled with random items. I wasn’t 100% sure about this one because the Korean text was quite difficult to understand. Same with the next part called ‘so-ryeom.’ After the so-ryeom, the dae-ryeom began about three days after death. At this time, the body was placed into the casket. This wasn’t a wooden casket but a wrapping made from cotton or silk called ‘gueui.’ This completed the proper burial preparation.

Traditional funerals in rural Korea were more like a ceremony; much different than what you see today (especially for westerners like me). There were two main biers: the coffin bier (sang-yeo) and the soul bier (yo-yeo). I assume depending on the person’s social status and wealth that these came in different sizes and styles. As you can see in this one the decorations are vibrant and highly detailed. I wish I could’ve gotten a closer zoom with my camera. To be honest, at first glance I thought this was a special dollhouse.

This one looks like the sedan chairs that royals used to ride around in. Thick ropes and sticks were tied together to support the weight of the coffin so the pallbearers could comfortably transport it. The number of pallbearers needed to carry this varied from 12 to 32!! Since the village people in rural Korea all owned the funeral equipment, they often shared them. I wish I could see some other designs.  Maybe I’ll have to find another folk museum somewhere else to see.

Funeral assistants also carried huge flags with symbols.

After the funeral ceremony, a spirit shrine is built at the deceased person’s home. This shrine, called binso, is said to settle the soul during the 3-year mourning period. During this time, interaction with the deceased is closely monitored by the chief mourner. As family members and guests come to pay their respect to the lost soul, the chief mourner stands to the right of the guest and faces north while crying in sorrow with them. He has two specific sticks he has to carry: a bamboo stick for a male’s funeral or a willow stick for a female’s funeral. Special meals are also prepared at the shrine.

Address: 13, Minsokchon-gil, Andong-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do

Otgol Village: Gyeongju Choi Clan Residence
Samunjin Naruteo Dock (Tavern Village) and Hwawon Resort

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