by Keith Barber

Some alternate views of the afterlife

Artwork used to decorate funeral biers, called kkoktu, is on display at Wake Forest’s Museum of Anthropology in the exhibit Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Jourey to the Other World.

Joseph Campbell, the renowned mythology scholar, once said, “The ultimate mystery of being and nonbeing transcends all categories of knowledge and thought.” The mystery of nonbeing, or death, is what gave rise to primitive myths. On Jan. 20, the Museum of Anthropology at Wake Forest University presents the Korean culture’s artistic interpretation of the journey from this world to the next as the traveling exhibit, Korean Funerary Figures: Companions for the Journey to the Other World, makes an extended stop in the Piedmont Triad. The exhibit, which runs until May 16, features 19 th- and early 20 th -century kkoktu — Korean artwork used to decorate funeral biers. The exhibition represents the first time this funerary artwork has been shown outside Korea. In a prepared statement, Charlotte Horlyck, a lecturer in the history of Korean at the University of London, said throughout history, funerary artifacts have helped ease the sense of loss felt by those left behind. “Particularly significant are the mechanisms used to ease the transition from one state of being to another, for the dead as well as the mourners,” Horlyck said of the kkoktu. “Not only did the living need to ensure that the dead were guided to the afterlife in the best possible manner, but they themselves also had to adjust to the changes that were caused by the loss of an individual.” In Korea, the custom of placing figurines in tombs dates back to the fourth century AD. Examples of the wooden funeral figures known as kkoktu that were buried in tombs or positioned on funeral biers will be on display at Wake Forest’s Museum of Anthropology beginning Jan. 20. “Their costumes and poses reflect the realities of rural Korean village life during a period that left few written records,” said Jinyoung Kim, senior program officer of the Korea Society in New York. “More importantly, the kkoktu open a window on a timeless, characteristically Korean attitude towards death. Though the gaiety depicted in many of the figurines may seem incompatible with mourning, what they are intended to express is a deep desire that the deceased person will enter the next world surrounded by joy. The figurines also embody a sophisticated appreciation of the fleeting nature of all experience.” In the Korean tradition, the funeral bier carried the coffin of the deceased to the burial ground. “It was a transitional stage, where the deceased was at an ambiguous frontier between the here and now and the beyond,” writes Jang Sukman, director of the Chunggan Institute for Cultural Studies in Seoul. The funeral bier, either carried by porters or supported on wheels, was used to traverse the distance between the residence of the deceased and an ancestral burial site usually situated in the mountains at a distance from the village. A deceased person who was to be buried or cremated near the village had no need for a funeral bier. Accordingly, the funeral bier was a symbol of the great distance between life and death, writes Sukman. The material from which the kkoktu are made has special significance in the Korean tradition. “While a few kkoktu carry a weapon made of metal, most are made solely of wood,” writes Sukman. “Wood is hard but not cold like stone or metal. Nor is it a match for them in terms of durability. Wood eventually will disintegrate. Yet it is more durable than fleshy creatures In this sense, we can envision the future in wood. Wood can console us more than stone or metal. Metal and stone are like the gods above — hard and eternal. Wood is softer and more vulnerable. It is like us. Wood has a give and take that situates it somewhere between the animal and mineral kingdoms.”