When in need of rejuvenation and renewal, it is not uncommon to hit the spa, seek time in nature or perhaps go on some soul-searching travels. In South Korea, it has become a trend in recent years to experience your own “fake” funeral service as a way of gaining new perspectives on life.
The Hyowon Healing Center in South Korea has been offering mass “living funeral” services to people since it opened in 2012. Since then, more than 25,000 people have taken part in simulating their deaths in order to better appreciate life.
While the Hyowon Healing Center is a funeral home conducting real funerals, they began adding to their services by offering “living funerals” in response to the growing problem of mental health issues and suicide in South Korea.
Data from the World Health Organization shows that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with 29.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016. While the rate decreased slightly from the previous year, it is still much higher than Hungary, which has the second-highest suicide rate with 19.4 per 100,000 people.
In the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index, South Korea ranked 33 out of 40 countries surveyed.
Suicide has become one of the leading causes of death in the country, particularly among those aged under 40. Many younger South Koreans are facing a crisis of increased pressures to do well in school, university and eventually work. A lagging economy and increasing unemployment rates only make things more difficult.
For younger and older South Koreans alike, the stress of making ends meet, earning and maintaining a career in order to provide for family and life have become overwhelming, spawning higher rates of depression and a culture of overwork similar to Japan.
Hyowon’s “living funeral” services are meant to combat stresses and give the participant a new lease on life, so to speak.
“Once you become conscious of death, and experience it, you undertake a new approach to life,” said 75-year-old Cho Jae-hee, who took part in a living funeral as part of a “dying well” program sponsored by her senior welfare centre.
Officials at Hyowon say the simulated death ceremonies are meant to give the participant a truthful sense of their lives, inspire gratitude, and aid in forgiveness and reconnection among family and friends.
Many have taken part in the event to find new perspectives on life, including young people in their teens. For the elderly and the terminally ill, participation in living funerals can help them prepare for death in a kind of “rehearsal.”
So how does it work?
In a VICE documentary of one of the events, a big group of people can be seen wearing funeral-like robes while seated next to wooden coffins. A man guides them through the process of writing out their last wills and testaments, which they do before getting into their respective coffins.
“Now, sadly, it’s time to go,” the guide says. “Next to you there’s a big wooden box. The box is known as a coffin.”
All participants climb into their coffins, lay down and close their eyes.
“Now, all of you are dying,” says the guide. “Your organs are failing, one by one, and you will eventually take your last breath.”
The coffins are then closed. After an unspecified amount of the time, sometimes as short as 10 minutes, the coffins are opened while the guide says, “With the top of your coffin, a new life has opened”.
Participants then leave their “old hardships … in the coffin in the other world”, and receive a new lease on life as they climb out.
Jeong Yong-mun, founder and leader of Hyowon Healing Centre, calls the process “heal-dying”.
“That’s why I think this experience is so important—we can apologise and reconcile sooner and live the rest of our lives happily,” Jeong said to Reuters.
Jeong said that while he sees people reconcile at others’ funerals, it saddens him that people wait till someone actually dies to do so.
Interestingly, Jeong said he doesn’t accept every person who wants to participate in one of the simulated funerals, and has also persuaded those considering suicide to choose life instead.
“I picked out those people who have asked themselves whether … they can actually commit suicide, and I reversed their decision,” Jeong said.
According to university student Choi Jin-kyu, the “heal-dying” process allowed him to realise that he needed to change the competitive way he viewed other people. The 28-year-old added that he was inspired to start his own business after graduation.
The living funeral services, which are free, continue to draw a wide age range of participants, from all backgrounds and walks of life. Rather than viewing it as a strange and morbid activity, people who have gone through it consider the ceremony a cleansing, eye-opening experience that brings about a rejuvenated and well-adjusted perspective on life. -/TISG