FUNERALS IN KOREA
After a Korean person dies he or she is usually honored with a Buddhist funeral, then buried, often with a procession that has some Confucian elements. These days multifaith ceremonies, sometimes with Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns chanting prayers, are not unusual, reflecting South Korea's modern mix of Confucian mourning traditions, Christian afterlife beliefs and shamanistic and Buddhist rites. Some people are buried in a coffin; others are cremated.
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: Korean funeral customs are a mixture of filial piety, reverence for ancestors, and the rural environment of traditional Korea, all influenced by instructions on family rituals that are contained in classical texts from the Confucian tradition of East Asia...When a grandfather dies... his gravesite is chosen with great care, using ancient principles of geomancy and fortune-telling that take into account the hour of the man's birth and death, the signs of the zodiac, and the contours of the land around his fields. When the spot has been determined, a funeral is staged that allows friends and family to come together to express their grief publicly. A year after the funeral, the family gathers again for the ritual of the chesa — to remember the grandfather and to hold a feast, including a symbolic offering of food to the departed spirit. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“Modern urban Korea, of course, cannot accommodate the traditional village funeral. Instead of a bier there is often a truck. The dead are buried with much less of a wake. The graves are in burying grounds that are confined to zones outside the city limits, and the mourners have to get there by chartered bus. The government officially frowns on the expense involved in traditional funerals and urges families to stick to simpler observances. Nevertheless it is only natural for Korean families, like families everywhere, to express their respect and anguish at the death of a loved one by gathering their friends and staging an impressive ceremony. Though the environment has changed, the impulses and feelings are much as they have always been.
At the funeral for Roh Moo-hyun, the South Korean president that committed suicide in 2008, more than 2,500 attended the formal ceremony in the courtyard of a palace in the heart of ancient Seoul, where Roh's portrait sat on a bed of 1 million chrysanthemums laid in the shape of a Rose of Sharon, South Korea's national flower. Dressed in traditional hemp mourning outfits, performers carried out Confucian rites designed to send Roh's spirit to heaven and to comfort his soul. A funeral procession began at dawn in Roh's hometown of Bongha. Villagers lined the streets and tossed yellow paper airplanes and origami cranes at the hearse blanketed with white chrysanthemums, a traditional Korean symbol of mourning. Roh's body was to be cremated outside Seoul before being returned to his home village. South Koreans mourned online, watching "live" broadcasts of the funeral and flooding bulletin boards and Roh's own Web site with hundreds of thousands of condolence messages.
These days cremations are more common than coffin burials. Jung-yoon Choi wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In Confucian South Korea, paying regular respects at the grave site of elders was for generations the preferred practice. But by the late 1990s, when the nation acknowledged its shortage of buildable land, cremation slowly became more popular. Nearly 70 percent of those who died in 2010 were cremated, nearly twice the percentage only a decade before, according to government statistics. Whereas some South Koreans bury the ashes, most store them in mausoleums.” [Source: Jung-yoon Choi, Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2012]
For a good description of traditional Korean funeral rites see “Ancestor Worship and Korean Society” by Roger L. Janelli and Dawnhee Yim Janelli (Stanford University Press, 1982), especially Chapter 3.
After the Person Dies in Korea
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “The ideal response to the death of an aged male relative involves a gathering of the family to witness the individual's last hours (though women were not supposed to witness the death of a man, and vice versa). [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“When the man dies, a quilt is used to cover the body and the relatives commence formal mourning, beginning with a loud wail to announce to the villagers that the death has occurred. A relative is sent up onto the roof of the house with a coat belonging to the deceased, to wave it toward the sky in a gesture that symbolizes inviting the spirit not to leave but to return to the body. After this the body is bathed and prepared for burial, a process that may take a day or more while relatives are notified and mourners arrive from other places. After being washed and dressed the corpse is bound tightly with cotton bands tied at seven places from head to ankles. If it has not been prepared in advance, a coffin is constructed.”
Before the funeral, cotton is placed under the nose of the deceased, gauze is placed on the face, the clothes are cut off, and the body is washed and wrapped in a shroud and placed in a coffin. Wailing women pay respect to the body. There is also much weeping and expressions of emotions before a picture of the deceased.
Setting foot on a threshold, it is believed, can bring bad luck — a superstition that is tied to funeral beliefs that date back at least to the 12th century. Koreans have traditionally believed that it is preferable for one to die at home and for the body to remain in the home for some time. Leaving the house in a coffin is viewed as the final departure from the world of the living and thus the threshold of the front door was viewed as the boundary between life and death. For this reason it is considered a sign of misfortune — even a harbinger of death — for a living person to step on the threshold of a door
Wake and Gatherings Before a Korean Funeral
According the Buddhist customs, family members stay in the same room with the body of the deceased on the night before the funeral. Often they don't sleep the whole night, and sometimes there are big wake-like parties with family members and friends. The all-night funeral vigils often turn into gambling and drinking parties. In the 70s, the government discouraged the practice because so many people got roaring drunk and missed the next day of work.
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: The wake and funeral process “usually lasts three days: the day of death, the day following, and the third day, which is the day of burial. During this period the family members wear full mourning costumes made of loose-woven hemp cloth, tan in color, made into pantaloons, jackets, and a special kind of peaked hat. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“The chief mourner is the eldest son, and it is his duty to grieve visibly, “wailing and even collapsing and needing to be upheld by his brothers while he cries for his father. Other relatives also wail and cry out loud, venting their feelings and joining in the survivors' bonding ritual. Meanwhile, neighbors and friends from surrounding villages arrive to offer condolences, being received by the eldest son and making contributions toward the expense of the funeral ritual. The visitors' names are recorded in a condolence book and they are invited to stay as long as they want, to join in meals and funeral preparations.”
Funeral and Procession in Korea
During the funeral the body is taken the family graves, often in the mountains somewhere. People attending the funeral pile onto buses or cars and follow the vehicle carrying the coffin. Many men wear Confucian-style paper hats. When the funeral procession arrives at the parking area near the graves, the body is carried to the grave by men who occasionally stop and are urged onward with money or shouts of encouragement. After the body is buried in a mound a few feet high, mourners place pieces of sod on the grave. Mourning women often wear white cotton, while men are clad in hemp cloth. The coffins is followed by sons wearing traditional yellow hats and hemp robes and carrying bamboo sticks.
Clark wrote: . Most villages keep an elaborate wooden bier, the equivalent of the American hearse, in which to transport the coffin from the home to the gravesite. This is a frame, or platform, that is carried by pallbearers, onto which is placed the coffin. The decorations vary with the age and social position of the deceased, but they always include streamers and paper flowers that can be burned at the gravesite as a kind of prayer offering to heaven. The night before the actual burial, the pallbearers bring the bier to the family's courtyard and spend several hours rehearsing their chants. The next morning the coffin is loaded onto the bier and the procession begins its rhythmic journey to the gravesite, which has been carefully chosen on a hillside overlooking the man's fields and perhaps the village itself. The procession makes its way to the grave by a circuitous route that permits the deceased one last visit to his fields. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“Leading the procession is a person bearing a funeral banner, a musician or two, someone carrying a black-draped photograph of the deceased, and a funeral director singing the verses to the village's traditional funeral chant, which is chorused by the pallbearers as they carry the bier. Behind the bier comes the eldest son in tan hemp mourning clothes, holding himself up on a staff and venting his grief in crying and wailing. The other relatives and mourners follow in a small parade until the entire company reaches the gravesite on the hill.
“One of the most unforgettable styles of rhythm in the countryside was the funeral chant used by pallbearers as they carried the coffin of their friend or loved one to the burial site. These chants differed from village to village, but they normally consisted of verses and a refrain that gave the leader a chance to sing short stanzas about the deceased and for everyone else to join in on the chorus. Villagers learned the community chant in early childhood and grew up hearing and watching the organized grief that accompanied village funerals, with rhythms and singing as essential components. The night before the burial itself the strong men of the village would rehearse their chant by torchlight, sending chills up and down the spines of onlookers. In the morning the body in the coffin would be carried on a bier through the alleyways of the village and out across the fields that the dead man had owned, and finally to a carefully selected site on a hill above the village for burial. The prescribed ritual gave everyone a role to play and impressed upon the participants the importance of family life and community support. Among the important lessons for the children was the inculcation of music as a part of life and death.
Funeral Ceremony During the Burial in Korea
At the burial site, where a grave has been dug, people bow as the coffins is placed behind an altar. Clark wrote: “In some villages the coffin is lowered into the grave. In others, the body, still tightly bound from head to toe in mourning cloth, is taken out of the coffin and placed in a specially dug trench in the bottom of the grave. Boards from the coffin are laid to cover the trench, and earth is then shoveled in to cover the boards and fill in the grave. The remaining boards are placed into the graveside fire along with the paper decorations from the bier. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“All these processes are accompanied by the singing and chanting of the village's funeral song. A proper village funeral always features a tent beside the gravesite where mourners are invited once again to express their condolences to the family and to make contributions. Wine flows freely and everyone is invited back to the family home in the village to partake of a post-funeral feast.” Money is given. As is true with weddings there is a system to figure out how much a family pays. Sometimes pay back debts and even make bribes using this system.
“After the funeral the family fashions an ancestral tablet for the spirit of the deceased, carving it of fine wood and inscribing it with essential data. Mourners who arrive too late for the funeral may still express their sorrow in front of this tablet. Later it is placed with the tablets of other family ancestors. The spirit was thought to remain in the tablet for several months or even years following the funeral. Thus it was very important to offer reverence to the spirit in regular chesa ceremonies.”
Mourning Events After a Korean Funeral
On the 49th day after someone has died, his or her favorite meal is prepared and placed on an altar. On anniversaries of relatives’ and ancestors’ deaths soju is sometimes poured on the graves. On some important Korean holidays, Koreans visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects.
Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Many Koreans believe in ancestral spirits and observe Confucian rituals concerning funerals, mourning practices, and memorial services. Mourning periods vary, depending on the social status of the deceased, from one day to two years. At domestic rites performed on the eve of the death day and on major holidays, the ancestral image is that of living, dependent, and inactive parents to whom food and wine are offered. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Clark wrote: “The sosang ceremony on the first anniversary of death was very important. The taesang ceremony on the second anniversary officially ended the mourning period, and only then, theoretically at least, were the family members supposed to stop wearing the hemp mourning clothes. All through the two-year mourning period the children of the deceased were supposed to live subdued lives, refraining from celebrations of any kind and refusing alcohol and other indulgences. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
Chesa is a family ceremony that honors the memory and spirits of departed ancestors usually performed on one of Korea's feast days, such as Lunar New Year's Day. Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “No Confucian family ritual is more significant than the annual chesa or ceremony honoring the spirits of the most recently departed ancestors. “Someone may address the spirit in an attitude like prayer, the act that makes the chesa seem like ancestor worship to Westerners, even though it is more properly understood as a ceremony honoring the memory of an ancestor. The real purpose of the chesa ceremony is to remind everyone of the continuity of the family and of the debt that is still owed by younger generations to those who went before.
“Because of the stress on lineage in Korean culture, chesa has attracted much attention as a key element of family life. The "standard" chesa is a family ceremony that remembers one or two, or sometimes three, generations of ancestors in the father's lineage. Families honor their ancestors in chesa ceremonies on Lunar New Year's Day and Ch'usok, the Harvest Festival. They also honor specific ancestors on the anniversaries of their deaths, particularly if the person being honored has died within the past three years. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“The ceremony is simple yet elegant and respectful. The men of the family gather in a hall or main room of the house of the eldest living male descendant, into which has been placed the "ancestral tablet" (shinju) of the deceased. The tablet is the object that symbolizes the spirit of the ancestor and, if the family has the means, is usually stored in a special shrine called a sadang. When it is brought into the house for the chesa, the tablet is treated like an extremely valuable and even holy object. Written on it is the name of the ancestor and his titles, if any, and the dates and hours of his birth and death, essential elements for determining his fortune. It is always kept in a polished lacquer case and the case is kept closed except during the actual ceremony, when it is opened enough to expose the tablet to view.
“Before the ceremony the women of the household — who until recent years never participated in the ancestral ceremony itself — will have arranged dishes containing assorted grains, meats, fruits, nuts, wine, and pastries or confections along with bowls of rice and soup with chopsticks and spoons as if for a feast. The eldest male relative is the master of ceremonies and leads the men in offering the food to the ancestral spirit. He does this by spooning cooked rice into the soup bowl set before the ancestral tablet. The ceremony varies by region and household but normally the other men take turns symbolically feeding the spirit and then together they do a deep ritual bow, the ultimate sign of respect. They get down on their knees, put their hands on the floor, and then touch their foreheads to their hands. The bow is done slowly and repeatedly, with the participant rising to his feet between each bow.
“The complete chesa consists of several rounds of this ritual serving and bowing. It may also involve statements addressed to the spirit that resemble prayers to the dead ancestor. It is this feature of the ceremony that has always caused friction between the Confucian tradition and Christianity in Korea, as elsewhere in East Asia, since Christians are supposed to reject spirits and worship only Jehovah, in keeping with the Ten Commandments. However, Christians, like all Koreans, strongly feel the need to memorialize their ancestors in one way or another. They have therefore found ways to turn the traditional ancestral ceremony into a memorial service instead of a feast that connotes communing with the dead.”
Views on the Afterlife in Korea
Views about afterlife are based mostly in Christianity and Buddhism. Koreans who believe in ancestor worship regard death as a transformation not a final state. According to traditional shamanist beliefs death is a journey to the “otherworld.” This otherworld may be nearby. maybe just across the next mountain. The dead are often characterized has having qualities similar to the living.
According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Christian ideas of the afterlife involve heaven and hell; reincarnation is the belief of Buddhists. Although Confucian teaching on the afterlife is uncertain and implicit, Koreans who observe ancestor worship believe that death is not a final termination but a transformation. In Korean folk belief, death means a departure from this world to the "otherworld." Death is thought to be a rite of passage, and the dead are generally considered to be similar to the living. Elaborate ancestor-worship rites, offering various foods as to a living person, spring out of these beliefs. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]
Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Folk beliefs about the afterlife are somewhat influenced by Buddhism but are characterized by diversity. Selecting good grave sites according to geomantic principles is regarded as important for both the ancestral spirit and the descendants' fortune. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
There are burial mounds all over Korea. If you go hiking in the hills and mountains there you are likely to stumble across some. Each tomb is positioned with great care. The selection of good tomb site is important for bringing about a pleasant after-life for the deceased. Well-tended graves often have grass around the tombs that is periodically clipped by family members.
The site is often chosen based on principals of feng shui (geomacy) Ideally, a tomb should be set on a hillside facing south with a view of water or a valley. A stand of trees should shelter the grave from the back, and nearby there should be mountains-one shaped like a tiger and one like a dragon. The exact spot is chosen by a geomacer using an instrument that looks like a large compass with a string attached to it.
Because of a general lack of space and land, a law was implemented in 1998 that limited the space occupied by a grave to about 10 square meters. The government is also encouraging people to practice cremation rather than burial, but cremation has taken a while to catch on because it goes against Confucian burial practices. As a solution to the shortage of land for burials, a member of charity group devised a way to transform cremated human remains into ornamental beads.
Tombs of Kings
The Koreans have great respect for their dead ancestors. When the government decided to excavate the tombs of kings in Kjongju, many Koreans were appalled by the idea. To placate them, archaeologists and workers who excavated the tombs were asked to show respect by not smoking or laughing while working. The tombs, as a result, took longer to excavate than they did to build.
Burial mounds for Silla dynasty kings are the size of small hills. Objects discovered inside royal tomb have included jewelry, stone burial urns, horn-shaped drinking vessels, decorative eave tiles, Buddhas of stone, bronze, gold, iron and wood, ceramics, swords, gold bridles, crowns and a painting of a divine flying horse. Eggs for nourishment in the afterlife have been found inside the coffins of some of kings.
Chosun dynasty tombs usually have a red gateway with a yin/yang medallion and a stone pathway that leads from the entrance to a T-shaped pavilion where memorial services are conducted. Nearby is usually a stone pavilion with a stelae that lists the achievements of the deceased ruler. The grassy mound with the tomb inside is behind the pavilions. Around the mound are stone figures of sheep (yin) and tigers (yang) and their accompanying horses.
South Koreans Mourn Human Ashes Turned into Beads
Rather than keeping their relatives' ashes in urns, some South Koreans have the remains of loved ones turned into gem-like beads that are placed in a dish. Reporting from Icheon, Jung-yoon Choi wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “When Jeon Gyeong-suk lost her husband to cancer three months ago, she agonized over how to keep his remains. Because land is at a premium, burial was out, and she found the idea of a heap of ashes stored in an urn sort of creepy. So the 51-year-old widow paid US$900 to transform her husband's ashes into a few handfuls of tiny bluish beads that have the look of beluga caviar. Even though the beads look like pebble-sized gems, they aren't meant to be strung into a necklace. Instead, some mourners keep them in dishes and glass containers, the point being to keep a lost loved one close by. "I miss my husband so much," said Jeon, who buried his beads in her front yard. [Source: Jung-yoon Choi, Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2012]
“For Jeon and others here, the image of ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust just seems like unfinished burial business. Death beads, they say, are a thing of beauty. But the beads are not without their critics, who insist that they dishonor the dead by needlessly manipulating human remains. Bae Jae-yul, founder and CEO of the "death bead" firm Bonhyang, says he's served more than 1,000 customers in 10 years. He remembers one client who didn't want to burden his children with overseeing the tomb where their grandparents were kept. So he razed the grave and created a group of beads with the mixed remains of both parents. Now the beads are kept at home, where they're accessible to the whole family.
“After years of trial and error, Bae developed a mechanism to make the death beads. The ashes-to-beads process takes about two hours. In a corner of a massive room in an industrial area an hour outside Seoul, Bae keeps an altar to hold rites for the dead. He often leads the rites with family members present. "This is an important process, because I am announcing that I will take good care of the deceased and handle it with utmost care," he said. The ashes are ground inside a special machine into a finer powder, which is reheated and shaped into beads. "The color and density of the beads vary from person to person," Bae said, adding that the finished colors range from coral and topaz to gray and black.”
Reducing Funeral Food Waste in Korea
Kang Shin-who wrote in the Korea Times: “Under Korea’s funeral customs, families of the deceased usually offer abundant food to those who come to pay condolences and often, a large amount is unconsumed and thrown away. Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Environment said Sunday that it aims to reduce the food waste generated at funeral service places by more than 20 percent. [Source: Kang Shin-who, Korea Times, July 25, 2010]
“As part of its efforts, the ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with the Korea Hospital Association and the Korea Funeral Trade Association last Friday to lower the waste of food. Under the agreement, 36 out of 115 large hospitals, which accommodate more than 12 funerals at a time, will provide mourners with individual food plates so that they can control the size of their meals, preventing leftovers.
“One or two mourners are normally served at a table which is set to feed four persons. According to the ministry, large-scale funeral homes can serve up to 1,000 condolers a day and generate an average of 160 grams of food waste per person, totaling 160 kilograms. In addition, funeral service agencies will lower the minimum quantity when customers order food. Currently, they accept food orders only large enough for 30 persons at a time.
To tackle these problems, the ministry and hospitals with funeral services, along with funeral service companies, have agreed to accept food orders for up to 10 persons and serve mourners individual food plates. Based on the results from the sampled hospitals, the ministry will expand the system to all of the 358 general hospitals and 881 funeral service agencies across the country starting from next year.
Mock Funerals Popular for a While in South Korea
Reporting from Chungju, Hyung-jin Kim of Associated Press wrote: “After solemnly reading their wills, seven perfectly healthy university students climb into caskets in a dimly lit hall. "I want to give all of you one more day to live, but it's time to be placed into coffins," a man in a black suit says in a resounding voice. "I hope your tired flesh and bodies will be peacefully put to rest." Workers nail the coffins shut, then sprinkle dirt on top as the lights are switched off and a dirge is played. Muffled sobs can be heard from some of the coffins. About 15 minutes later, they are opened and the five men and two women are "reborn." [Source: Hyung-jin Kim, Associated Press, January 10, 2008]
“The mock funeral, which aims to get participants to map out a better future by reflecting on their past, is part of a new trend in South Korea called "well-dying." The fad is an extension of "well-being," an English phrase adopted into Korean to describe a growing interest in leading healthier, happier lives. "I felt really, really scared inside the coffin and also thought a lot about my mom," said Lee Hye-jung, a 23-year-old woman studying engineering. "I'll live differently from now on so as not to have any regrets about my life." Other well-dying activities focus on death itself. Web sites store wills to be conveyed to relatives after death. Death coordinators help plan funerals in advance in case of unexpected death.
“Experts see the well-being and well-dying trend as a sign that South Koreans have grown affluent enough to be able to consider quality-of-life issues. But some dismiss services such as the fake funerals as moneymaking ventures. Korea Life Consulting Co., which staged the mock funeral for the students, charges up to 300,000 won (US$325) per customer. "Real death is totally different than this," said Chung Jae-hyun, a board director at the Korea Association of Thanatology, a Seoul-based group of academics who study death-related issues.
“Some leading companies see the service as a way of improving job performance. Samsung Electronics Co., South Korea's largest firm, sent 900 workers in 2006 from its factory in Gumi, 260 kilometers (160 miles) southeast of Seoul. The experience makes workers more efficient, said Kim Hee-jin, a personnel manager at the Gumi plant, which makes mobile phones, computer printers and fax machines.
“Korea Life Consulting held the students' funeral at a mountain resort in Chungju, 150 kilometers (90 miles) south of Seoul. Photos of celebrities who died prematurely, including Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, were hung on the walls. The students donned a traditional garment for the dead, made from hemp. One worker wore a black robe and a wide-brim cylindrical hat, the outfit of a death messenger in Korean folklore. Participants take a class on the meaning of life, pose for portrait photos to be used at the service and write wills as if they have three days to live. "Mom and Dad! Everything I have now is from you, your teaching and your love. I'm so sorry that I have to leave you behind," said Hwang Yun-jin, a 29-year-old mechanical engineering major, crying as she read her will aloud.
“Ko Min-su, who hosted the ceremony and heads Korea Life Consulting, said about 50,000 people have taken part in his fake funerals since they began in 2004. Most are in their 30s and 40s. His company has eight offices around the country, and copycats have sprung up. "To die well, we should live well," he said. "Many participants cried while reading their wills, which means they felt they had much to regret."
Fake Funeral with a Seminar on Mortality in South Korea
By 2010, entrepreneurs across South Korea were holding seminars aimed at teaching clients how to better appreciate life by simulating death and using mortality as a way to boost motivation. The Coffin Academy was a four-hour course that ended by a 10 minute session lying on your back s in a closed coffin. Reporting from Daejeon, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, South Korea — For Jung Joon, the moment of truth arrives for his clients as they slip into the casket and he pounds the lid in place with a wooden hammer. Insights arise, he says, as they are confronted with total, claustrophobic darkness, left alone to weigh their regrets and ponder eternity. Jung, a slight 39-year-old with an undertaker's blue suit and a preacher's demeanor, is a resolute counselor on the ever-after who welcomes clients with the invitation, "OK, today let's get close to death." [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2010]
“Jung runs a seminar called the Coffin Academy, where, for US$25 each, South Koreans can get a glimpse into the abyss. Over four hours, groups of a dozen or more tearfully write their letters of goodbye and tombstone epitaphs. Finally, they attend their own funerals and try the coffin on for size. In a candle-lighted chapel, each climbs into one of the austere wooden caskets laid side by side on the floor. Lying face up, their arms crossed over their chests, they close their eyes. And there they rest, for 10 excruciating minutes. "It's a way to let go of certain things," says Jung, a former insurance company lecturer. "Afterward, you feel refreshed. You're ready to start your life all over again, this time with a clean slate."
“Across South Korea, a few entrepreneurs are conducting controversial forums designed to teach clients how to better appreciate life by simulating death. Equal parts Vincent Price and Dale Carnegie, they use mortality as a personal motivator for a variety of behaviors, from a healthier attitude toward work to getting along with family members. Many firms here see the sessions as an inventive way to stimulate productivity. The Kyobo insurance company, for example, has required all 4,000 of its employees to attend fake funerals like those offered by Jung. There's another motivation: South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the developed world.
“Standing at a pink-and-white wooden pulpit, Jung gives a two-hour lecture about life and death. He points out that the end can come at any time and asks the group for a "bucket list" of negative personal traits they would like to lose while they have the chance. At first, the 12 men and six women in the class distractedly check text messages and make bathroom runs. One woman pulls out a mirror to reapply her makeup. Slowly, as Jung asks clients to talk about their own families, the gravity of the subject hits home. The room goes silent. Several women reach for tissues to dab away tears. During a break, Kim Myung-hee, 61, paces the near-empty classroom, dreading the exercises yet to come. "I'm just so afraid of being inside that casket," she says. "I have a heart condition."
“Later, with lights dimmed, Jung plays a funeral dirge as the participants write their epitaphs on paper with the image of a tombstone. Kim sobs loudly. "Suddenly, I feel so very old," she says as she writes, a candle burning at her side. Jung then asks students to imagine their last meal. "Think about whom you want to have that meal with," he urges. "Say goodbye to your loved ones." He leaves for 30 minutes as the students bend over their work. "It feels as if the end of this letter will be the finish line of my life," Song writes. "When I imagine if my family and the woman I love will wet this letter with tears, I can't keep back my own tears." Nearby, Kim continues to weep. "To my husband, who has always loved his reckless, intractable wife," she writes. "When I was trying to run away, you always embraced and hugged me. Honey, you were always there. Cremate me and bury me under a tree near some water."
“Minutes later, the tears stop and the terror begins. The students file into the chapel and take their places before the rows of empty coffins. Standing before a banner that says "Rest in Peace," several read aloud their final letters to family. One gray-haired man says he was a lousy husband. A woman warns her spouse not to drink too much after she is gone. Then, it's time. One man gulps as Jung instructs them to don South Korea's traditional yellow hemp death robe. Photos and epitaphs are placed at the head of each casket. One by one, the clients lie with eyes wide, waiting for the lid to close and the darkness to come. A man in a blue suit insists on a crack through which to breathe. A woman suddenly rises and announces that she can't do it. The chapel goes quiet. Ten minutes and a seeming eternity later, Jung breaks the silence. "When you open your eyes, there will be a new life starting, which is different from yesterday." Suddenly, the mood lightens. People hug. Brushing off his pants, Song says he was unnerved by the darkness. "I didn't like it," he says. "It felt like being suffocated."
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021