Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World

From Ghanaian coffins to the Mexican Day of the Dead, cultures around the world find some rather beautiful ways to remember those who’ve passed.

Acrobatic Clown, Painted on Wood, late 19th/early 20th Century
Acrobatic Clown, Painted on Wood, late 19th/early 20th Century

An exhibition opening this month looks at the wonderful Funerary Figures of Korea, Kokdu, which are used in Korean towns and villages to decorate funeral biers.

The figures and objects demonstrate how Korea celebrates life and death, and the show, held at London’s Korean Cultural Centre, will feature a selection of the 20,000 or so figures that have been collected by The Kokdu Museum of Korea.

Triple-Faced Man Riding a Horse, painted on wood, late 19th/early 20th Century
Triple-Faced Man Riding a Horse, painted on wood, late 19th/early 20th Century

The figures are used to decorate the funeral bier, and are thought to accompany the person to their final resting place and prepare them spiritually for their journey into the afterlife, providing guidance, protection and entertainment.

Phoenix entangled with a pine tree, painted on wood, late 19th/early 20th Century
Phoenix entangled with a pine tree, painted on wood, late 19th/early 20th Century

A far cry from a solemn coffin, they are bright, playful and imaginative, showing the ‘Korea’s optimism towards life’, according to the gallery. A traditional Korean funeral bier will also be on show.

Funerary Bier
Funerary Bier

Each type of figure has a different function – for instance The Entertainer characters aim to raise the spirits when travelling alone to the unknown destination after death by playing musical instruments and dancing.

Musician playing a wind instrument, painted on wood, late 19th/early 20th Century
Musician playing a wind instrument, painted on wood, late 19th/early 20th Century

The Guard, this little man on horseback, protects the traveller along their journey – warding off evil with aggressive facial expressions and weapons.

Man Riding a Horse, painted on wood, late 19th/early20th Century
Man Riding a Horse, painted on wood, late 19th/early20th Century

The Carer figures, these rather pious looking types, remain quiet and poised, looking after the traveller as they reach their destination.

Female Attendant or Bride, Painted on Wood, late 19th/early 20th Century
Female Attendant or Bride, Painted on Wood, late 19th/early 20th Century

The exhibition forms part of the All Eyes on Korean Festival of Korean Culture.

 Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World runs from 11 July – 8 September at Korean Cultural Centre UK, Grand Buildings, 1-3 Strand London WC2N

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