A South Korean healing center is offering free funerals — but only to the living.
More than 25,000 people have participated in mass “living funerals” at the Hyowon Healing Center in Seoul since it opened in 2012, hoping to improve their lives by simulating their deaths.
“Once you become conscious of death, and experience it, you undertake a new approach to life,” said 75-year-old Cho Jae-hee, who participated in a living funeral as part of a “dying well” program offered by her senior welfare center.
Dozens took part in the event, from teenagers to retirees, donning shrouds, taking funeral portraits, penning their last testaments and lying in a closed coffin for about 10 minutes.
University student Choi Jin-kyu said that his time in the coffin helped him realize that too often he viewed others as competitors.
“When I was in the coffin, I wondered what use that is,” said the 28-year-old, adding that he plans to start his own business after graduation rather than attempting to enter a highly competitive job market.
South Korea ranks 33 out of 40 nations surveyed in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Better Life Index.
Many younger South Koreans have high hopes for education and employment, which have been dashed by a cooling economy and rising unemployment.
“It is important to learn and prepare for death, even at a young age,” said professor Yu Eun-sil, a physician at Asan Medical Center’s pathology department, who has written a book about death.
In 2016, South Korea’s suicide rate was 20.2 per 100,000 residents, almost double the global average of 10.53, WHO data showed.
Funeral company Hyowon began offering the living funerals to help people appreciate their lives, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with family and friends, said Jeong Yong-mun, who heads the healing center.
Jeong said he is heartened when people reconcile at a relative’s funeral, but is saddened that they wait that long.
“We don’t have forever,” Jeong said. “That’s why I think this experience is so important — we can apologize and reconcile sooner, and live the rest of our lives happily.”
Occasionally, he has dissuaded those contemplating suicide.
“I picked out those people who have asked themselves whether ... they can actually commit suicide, and I reversed their decision,” Jeong said.
The center’s message of personal value resounded with Choi.
“I want to let people know that they matter, and that someone else would be so sad if they were gone,” Choi said, wiping away tears. “Happiness is in the present.”
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