Dying to Live

by Jessica Shor:

With a final strike of the hammer, the coffin lid is sealed. Shrouded in a traditional white funeral robe and surrounded by darkness and silence, the body lies in peace. Yet after ten minutes, the undertaker returns and opens the coffin. The deceased, suddenly bathed in light, climbs out of his final resting place, ready to begin life again.

In South Korea funerals like this one, staged for living participants, have become a centerpiece of the well-dying movement, a popular yet controversial effort to help Koreans find meaning in their lives.

At each well-dying seminar, participants begin by listening to a speech about the importance of finding meaning in one’s life. Then they analyze their own lives, including writing final messages to their families and friends and creating a last will and testament. With an often-teary good-bye, participants climb into their coffins, where they remain enclosed for up to fifteen minutes, left alone with their thoughts.

Korea Life Consulting, a company that pioneered the movement, has provided simulated funerals for more than 50,000 Koreans, according to the company’s founder, Ko-min Su. Entrepreneurs around the country have since started offering their own well-dying seminars, seeking to capitalize on a growing trend. Some major companies, including Samsung, Hyundai, and Kyobo Life Insurance, have even gone as far as to require many of their employees to take part in simulated funerals.

Illustration by TaoTao Holmes/TYG

While the seminars are for-profit enterprises—price per person ranges from $50 to $350—the leaders of this movement emphasize the psychological benefits their service provides. “These funerals affect people very strongly emotionally,” said Su. “People realize what they need to change in their lives, and that is very important. Participants can live better after this experience.” Dr. E. James Lieberman, an American psychiatrist who focuses on the psychology of mortality, agreed, calling the well-dying movement “constructive.” According to Lieberman, “In Korea they’re saying that death isn’t untouchable, that it happens to all of us, so let’s deal with it. Do you want to wait until someone puts your body in a coffin, or do you want to do it yourself? It shows a good spirit.”

Despite the apparent oddity of the well-dying movement, it may not be a coincidence that the trend emerged in South Korea. The country holds the unfortunate record of having the highest suicide rate in the world. Suicides have  doubled in the last 10 years, skyrocketing to 31 deaths per 100,000 people. By comparison, Japan has the world’s second highest suicide rate, at 24 per 100,000. Korea’s rising suicide rate is often attributed to recent societal changes. According to Kyoo-soeb Ha, the president of the Suicide Prevention Association of Korea, urbanization, economic modernization, and a liberalizing social climate have all contributed to weakened family ties, which Koreans traditionally relied on for social and psychological support.

The well-dying movement’s relationship with Korea’s high suicide rate is a point of contention. Many, like Lieberman, see simulated funerals as a positive step to combating the problem. “Awareness of death, and being mature about it, is an important step,” explained Lieberman. “If this movement helps people understand their own mortality and improve their lives, that’s healthy.”

Others, though, think that participating in one’s own funeral is at best unhelpful, and at worst a possible push towards suicide. A former senior manager at Samsung Korea, speaking on condition of anonymity, criticized his company’s practice of requiring employees to stage their own funerals: “These rituals turn suicide into a personal matter,” he said. “There have to be more societal changes, and people need to look into what aspects of society cause suicides. We can’t just require people to take part in these seminars but not look at how the stressful work environment at Samsung may contribute to suicide.”

Suicide remains a taboo topic in Korean culture, and Koreans have limited access to psychological treatment. In this context, the well-dying movement offers Koreans a rare chance to deal directly with the problems they face. While the debate continues over the effects of simulated funerals, more and more people are turning to the movement for help, before the lids close on their coffins for good.

Jessica Shor ’13 is an Anthropology major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at jessica.shor@yale.edu.