A coffin; a box in which the body of a deceased person is placed for burial.
In the Paleolithic Era the bodies of the dead were interred in the soil without coffins. While no clear archaeological evidence has yet been discovered, archaeologists theorize that in the Neolithic Era containers made of wood were used to place corpses in before burial. In the Bronze Age, the settlers of the Korean Peninsula began to use coffins made of huge pottery jars or by hollowing logs. It was also in this period that they began to use coffins made of stone slabs. In the following early Iron Age and the Three Kingdoms period, the use of wooden coffins constructed of wooden planks became widespread. Pottery jars and stone continued to be among the favored materials for coffins, as well as clay and tiles. Coffins made of wood, stone and pottery continued to be used in the Goryeo and following Joseon periods.
A coffin was generally used for burial of the body of the deceased under the ground, but sometimes the coffin was placed in a larger container. The coffin used by early Korean people typically featured a rectangular box which was wider at the top for the shoulders and gradually tapered toward the opposite end, where the feet were placed. It was naturally longer and wider than the height and width of the corpse contained in it. The two major types of containers used for burial of the dead were called gwan or gwak. Sometimes no distinction was made between the two and sometimes they were called the inner and outer coffins.
Coffins were made of a variety of materials including wood, stone and pottery but wood was used most widely. The most common types of wood used to make coffins between the early Iron Age and the Three Kingdoms period include sawtooth oak, chestnut, and zelkova wood. From the Joseon period, pine and nut pine were among the most favored kinds of wood. Currently, however, paulownia wood is also widely used and, though less frequently, gingko. The diversity of materials used for wooden coffins in Korea may be attributed to the fact that Koreans chose the wood that was the most easily obtainable.
It is almost taboo today to use metal parts such as nails on wooden coffins, but in the past, from the Three Kingdoms to Goryeo and early Joseon, it was normal to use metal nails and even lavishly decorate the coffins with metal ornaments. It was probably after the mid-Joseon period that coffin makers began to shun metal fasteners and, instead, used woodworking joinery techniques such as dovetail joints because, as is generally presumed, the use of metal nails and ornaments required extra work and hence additional expense.
As for the stone coffins, coffin makers in Korea’s Bronze Age used the technique of fitting stone slabs together. Stone coffins were not widely used in the Three Kingdoms period, but in the following Goryeo period they were used extensively, although comparatively small in size. Relatively few examples of stone coffins from the Joseon period have been found. Stone coffins are still used today, to a limited extent.
It is generally presumed that the use of pottery jars for coffins began during the Neolithic Era. The archaeological discovery of jar coffins in the lower structure of dolmens, however, reveals that fullfledged use of jar coffins in Korea began during the Bronze Age. Each of these coffins consists of one jar only or two jars connected mouth to mouth. Once the jar coffin had a body placed inside, it was buried either horizontally or vertically.
Though rare, earthenware urns were also used as coffins. The earthenware urns of the early Iron Age and the Baekje Kingdom (18 BC–660 AD) are conspicuously small in size compared to jar coffins, suggesting that they were used for the body of a dead child or skeletal remains.
Other rare coffin types include wagwan, which were made of ceramic rooftiles, and funerary urns. The advent of Buddhism in Korea led to the popularity of cremation and widespread use of funerary urns in Baekje, Silla (57 BC-935 AD), and Goryeo. Cremation is widely practiced throughout Korea today, and accordingly the use of funerary urns of diverse shapes and materials is widespread.