Traditional Korean funeral practices are extremely complex. They stem from a tradition of Shamanism, Buddhism, and strict Confucian guidelines. Here is a simplified breakdown of traditional Korean funerals and the belief systems behind them.
Many archaeological finds indicate that the belief in the afterlife already existed in primitive society. For thousands of years, humanity has been trying to find answers to the questions of where and how the afterlife occurs. Death has always been beyond the bounds of human understanding. Firstly, this is because of its inevitability, and secondly, because of surprise and causelessness.
Death is perceived differently by different religions. Sometimes, it is a punishment for a sinful life. However, other times, it is a reward consisting of an eternal afterlife. But, it can often be both. Either way, all funeral architecture from different times and parts of the world demonstrates ideas about the afterlife and culture. First, the goal is to create conditions for further existence in another world. And, Secondly, is the aim to perpetuate the memory of the deceased.
Mounds are the most common type of above-ground burial structures. However, it is wrong to think that mounds represent anything in common with each other. Burial mounds are a wide variety of objects built both exclusively from the earth and using stones or wooden structures. At the same time, even those mounds which are built only with soil could be not just earthen hills.
The ancient culture of burial mounds in the East has its own history of development. However, in each nation, region, and time period individual features can be found. Burial mounds in Korea have come a long way. The modern form we see them in began to appear in the 14th century. The formation of this structure was continuously influenced by the rituals, traditions, worldviews, and social structure of the society. Burial mounds have been present in the Korean Peninsula for several millennia from the Neolithic era to the end of the Joseon Dynasty.
Now, we are going to travel back and find out more about Korean burial traditions, rituals, and monuments. And so, today we will learn a bit more about the history of Korean worldview, rituals, and faith.
The general worldview of traditional Koreans has several main unique characteristics.
Traditionally, every aspect of life should be in balance with the five elements: fire, water, wood, metal, and earth. Directions, numbers, colors, words, and dates – nearly everything was assigned one of these five elements.
Finding a balance between the five was present in many aspects of daily life. People’s names were assigned based on elements they were lacking according to their date of birth. The colors of traditional clothing and food, the positioning of buildings, the dates set for weddings – each was chosen with this philosophy in mind. It was so important in traditional life, that it is still present in the main features of the South Korean flag.
Based on the doctrine of the five elements, geomantics considered the earth as an organic living being. Each direction and location had significant meaning. In order for energy to flow and to prevent terrible things from happening locations needed to be chosen carefully.
One of the most important things was the choice of the optimal location for government buildings. However, second to that was burial locations. Only third, did dwellings come into consideration.
Presented in the guards of the four (sometimes five) directions of the World. All kinds of evil spirits, devils, and ghosts come to everyday superstitions from a special section of Korean mythology – shamanism.
Want to learn more about Shamanism in Korea? Click Here for an introduction!
The weakness of man in front of the natural elements led to the emergence of various rituals. As society developed, these rituals became much more complicated.
The earth was identified with the female body and the sky with male. During the Samguk Period, ancestors eventually transformed the basic idea into state power dynamics. Ruling men became associated with those from the heavens, of divine power.
They declared that the King and his descendants embodied the supreme spirit of Heaven. Their power was nothing more than a direct expression of heavenly will. The myths about the founders of the clan were canonized in Koguryeo, Baekche, and Silla. The worship of kings turned into a nationwide cult. Corresponding attributes arose – altars, temples, rituals. The high priests of the cult were the Kings who led the sacrifices to the ancestors, the founders of the state, and various elements.
The adoption of Buddhism as the official religion was the largest historical event in the development of religious consciousness in Korea. Buddhism in Korea gained a foothold in the country’s artistic culture since its early stage. Then, it made its way into ideology and philosophy, science, and education.
Later Confucianism was introduced. Then, the two blended with Shamanism as neither of the three were exclusive practices. This unique combination of the Buddhist culture and the predominance of Confucianism in the socio-political sphere persisted throughout the entire period of the three states, the Unified Silla and Goryeo. It persisted until the transformation of Confucianism into a state religious cult with the establishment of the Lee (Yi) dynasty at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries. However, the influence can still be felt in burrial practices even today
The ideology that sanctified the newly appeared state power accepted Confucian dogmas with approval. His teaching was about Heaven as the root cause and manager of all things. Meanwhile, the state was a single large family based on the patriarchal tradition.
The philosophy was all about submissiveness. The young submit to the old, the lower class to the upper class, and women to men. Filial devotion to the sovereign was in tune with the moods and world outlook, and most importantly, with the goals of the early feudal nobility.
The cult of ancestors is very important for a country with a Confucian way of life. Filial piety, which is the core of the Korean worldview, is expressed in respect for parents and ancestors. It is expressed in serving both living and deceased relatives.
The cult of ancestors consists of the belief in the afterlife of the ancestors in the form of various spirits that have the ability to influence the lives of their descendants. The Confucian cult of ancestors brought to Koreans a new host of deities as well as respectful sons worthy of emulation, chaste wives, faithful subjects, and virtuous sovereigns. Temples were built in honor of their spirits and merits where rituals and sacrifices were prepared.
worship and sacrifice for ancestors were placed in a central position in Confucianism. The main task was to pay respects to the ancestors up to at least the fourth generation and thank them for continuing the lives of the family.
This ceremony was performed four times during the year. First, on the anniversary of the death of the main ancestor of the family. Second, on the New Year’s holiday according to the lunar calendar. Third, in spring. And, finally in autumn (Chuseok).
Confucius himself and other figures of the Confucian pantheon were honored with a ritual commemoration. Ceremonies in their honor were held at the state level in special temples in honor of the glory of famous ancestors. Ceremonies were strictly regulated and took place in several stages: from the solemn distribution of duties between the participants of the service to the memorial meal. The ceremonies included burning incense, ritual bows, reading memorial tablets, listing the virtues of an ancestor, etc.
The traditional Korean funeral ritual’s purpose is to accompany the spirit of a deceased ancestor to heaven with honors. It was formed on the basis of Korean ideas about the innate immortality of the soul and on the Confucian doctrine of filial piety.
Among all cultural practices, this was considered the most important and serious ritual in Korean society. With the funeral ritual, the descendants express respect and gratitude to the deceased for his care during his lifetime. They expressed grief for the loss of a loved one. But, also welcomed them as a new familial diety.
The order of the ceremony depended on the occupation and wealth of the deceased. After the funeral ritual, rituals of “feeding the spirits” are performed with a certain frequency. It was, and in many cases still is believed that a spirit angry with the lack of offerings can send illness and misfortune to their descendants.
The traditional Korean funeral ritual in the known modern form was developed in the Joseon era, in the 14th-19th centuries. During this period Confucianism had been established as the official ideology of the royal dynasty. Along with this, the Confucian funeral rite (which is described in detail in the book “Family Ceremonies” by the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi) has finally held in Korea.
A whole complex of ritual actions is associated with burial in the ground due to the attitude towards the earth as the place where life starts and ends. There is a strong desire to provide the deceased with a good place. The place for the grave was chosen by specialists who had to carefully examine the area from all sides. According to folk beliefs, a well-chosen place provided the dead results in happiness and prosperity for the living.
In part 2 I will cover burial mounds throughout Korean history and regional differences. Click Here to read more!