As part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s “All Eyes on Korea” festival, an amazing exhibition has been set up, taking place from the 11th of July to the 8th of September. As usual, entry to this exhibition is free and takes place at the Korean Cultural Centre.
This exhibition, named “Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World”, aims to teach us about the mysterious and intricate ‘Kokdu’; decorated wooden figurines from the late 19th to early 20th Century. Kokdu figurines were used across Korea as decorations on funeral biers (Sangyeos) and are meant to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. The exhibition has a wide range of figurines, on loan from the Kokdu Museum of Korea, which feature some of the most detailed, colourful, amusing and interesting Kokdu figures you’ll ever come across. Luckily, the KCC provides detailed guides about the Kokdu figures in general, as well as lists of many of the figurines along with explanations.
The guide explains that Kokdu figurines represent beings that are found in the universe. These beings can come from the transcendental world, terrestrial world, and the world containing animals and plants. Because of this, a wide range of Kokdu figurines is possible. You might find human noblemen or servants, animals (both mythical and real), and plants like lotuses as Kokdu. The figurines were assigned different roles in guiding the deceased into the afterlife, for example a figurine might be a guard, carer or an entertainer.
The dominating part of this exhibition is the massive Sangyeo (funeral bier) at the entrance of the exhibition. This is truly breath-taking, and you could easily spend hours examining all the detail and hidden meanings in this piece. There was a very informative video on the Sangyeo (bier), which really helped you to understand the meaning behind some of Kokdu figurines and how a Sangyeo was used and regarded in general. Sangyeo also means wishes for the deceased, and these elaborate biers were used regardless of status of the dead. Carrying the bier to the final burial ground was a farewell ceremony which would offer solace, protection and guidance to the deceased.
Found on top of a bier is a Spirit Guide which is normally riding atop a beast. This guide is meant to escort the deceased to heaven. According to the video played in the KCC, a Youngyeo would also be normally placed on top of the bier; a sort of box which is believed to carry the spirit of the deceased. At the end of the ceremony the bier is burnt but Koreans believe spirits never die, so the Youngyeo is removed and kept by the family so that the person’s everlasting spirit is kept with the family.
“Death is not extinction but a continuance of once existence”
This is such an interesting exhibition and we recommend everyone go! It’s not as sombre and depressing as one would expect being a exhibition on things used in a funeral, in fact it’s rather touching to see how much respect and effort is gone into the send-off of the deceased. All the figurines are so intricately created and no matter what status you are, everyone is equal in death and gets the same treatment. It is also extra sentimental that the Youngyeo is taken home as a gesture of keeping the deceased spirit within the family forever. It’s always fascinating to learn about other cultures and this is an amazing opportunity for all us UK folks as a very friendly volunteer told us that many overseas Koreans have come to visit the exhibition as it’s not so easily accessible in Korea. So if you have a spare moment head on over to the Korean Cultural Centre and make sure you check it out!