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May 9, 2009

The rise of fake funerals in South Korea


Long story short: "Welcome to the new Korean craze of 'well-dying.' In a country infatuated with 'well-being' — living and eating healthily, even to the point where tobacco-makers offer vitamin-enriched 'well-being cigarettes' — training companies are now offering courses on dying a good death."

A July 22, 2008 Financial Times story by Anna Fifield has much more, and follows.

The photos above and below accompanied the story, part of a slideshow here.


When death is a reminder to live

Standing in front of a flower-covered altar in a dimly lit room, Baek Kyung-ah is reading out her will at her own funeral.

"I can't believe today is my last day," she chokes through sobs, her voice barely audible above the solemn music.

"To my husband, knowing that this will be my last time seeing you, I would like to apologise for thinking only about myself and for not being a caring wife. To my parents, just thinking about you makes my eyes teary. I love you," she cries, before heading off to lie down in a coffin and be "buried".

Welcome to the new Korean craze of "well-dying". In a country infatuated with "well-being" — living and eating healthily, even to the point where tobacco-makers offer vitamin-enriched "well-being cigarettes" — training companies are now offering courses on dying a good death.

"Korea has ranked number one in many bad things such as suicide and divorce and cancer rates, so I wanted to run a programme for people to experience death," says Ko Min-su, a 40-year-old former insurance agent who founded Korea Life Consulting, which offers fake funerals as a way to make people value life.

Korean corporations - from Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor to Kyobo Life Insurance and Mirae Asset Management - send their employees on Mr Ko's courses regularly, partly to encourage them to question their priorities in life and partly as a suicide prevention measure.

The course is now such an integral part of training at Samsung and Kyobo that they have even built their own fake funeral centres. International companies including ING and Allianz have also sent their staff on the courses.

Suicide is a serious problem in South Korea, which has the highest rate of self-inflicted deaths in the developed world, with 24.7 cases per 100,000 people, according to the latest report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The rate has doubled in the last five years.

Experts blame the sharp increase on the sudden changes in society resulting from South Korea's rapid industrialisation, which has led to cut-throat competitiveness and financial stress. "We have seen a lot of social change over the last 30 or 40 years and people are having a hard time keeping up with capitalist values," says Hong Kang-ui, president of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention. "At the same time, social support networks have weakened."

But quality of life is also an issue, with employees working extraordinarily long hours. Mr Ko's course aims to make participants re-evaluate their priorities. About 50,000 people have taken part since he launched it in 2004, a move prompted by the premature deaths of his two older brothers in air and car crashes.

Lee Joo-heung, a 45-year-old company manager in a yellow Hawaiian shirt, attended a recent course because he wanted to reflect on his past and prepare for his death. "I have never thought about not being there for my family, and I realised that if I died all of a sudden my wife and children would be left alone," he said.

Mr Ko, a smooth talker with a touch of the television evangelist about him, begins the course with a motivational presentation that includes a "life calculator" — counting the time until one's death down to the millisecond.

Then participants are led to a dark room where they are told to sit at candlelit desks and write their wills, prompted by some sample questions. If you died today, what would you tell your family? What would you say about your job and your life?

As they start to write, the room becomes filled with sniffing, women in particular struggling to hold back their tears.

Will completed, they collect their funeral portraits — participants are asked to pose on the way in - and enter the "death experience room", a large, dark space containing a series of open coffins and decorated with posters of famous bygones such as Ronald Reagan, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Lee Byung-chull, Samsung's founder.

In front of an altar covered with flowers and his funeral portrait, Mr Ko instructs his trainees to choose a coffin, put on a traditional hemp death robe and then read out their wills one-by-one.

Next, it is time to be buried. Participants lie down in their coffins, while a man wearing the outfit of a traditional Korean death messenger places a flower on each person's chest. Funeral attendants place lids on the coffins, banging each corner several times with a mallet. Dirt is thrown down on the lid, as loud as stones on a tile roof. The attendants leave the hall for five minutes — but it seemed like 30 minutes to those taking part.


Once the lids are lifted, Mr Ko asks the trainees how they felt. "When they were nailing the coffin and sprinkling the dirt, it felt like I was really dead," Ms Baek says. "I thought death was far away but now that I have experienced it, I feel like I have to live a better life."

Yoon Soo-yung, a manager at the Cheonnam Educational Training Institute, who was considering sending her staff on the course, said the experience was terrifying. "I felt like I was suffocating. I cried a lot inside my coffin," she told the FT. "I regretted so many things that I had done in my life and mistakes that I had made."

Some medical experts are less convinced of the value of such programmes as a suicide prevention measure. "I think treating the fundamental causes like depression and impulsive behaviour is more important and should come before such programmes," says Chung Hong-jin, professor of neuropsychiatry at the Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul.


Mr Ko, however, says those who have completed his course become more considerate, and attach greater value to their lives. "Life is a gift from your parents, but the way you live depends on the choices that you make," he says. "People realise the beauty of life by experiencing death."

May 9, 2009 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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