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South Koreans learn to thank life by experiencing death
  • By Lee Han-soo
  • Published 2019.08.06 06:00
  • Updated 2019.08.06 07:59
  • comments 0

Some South Koreans are using an unorthodox method to appreciate life and cope with real-world stress -- attending their own funeral.

The Hyowon Healing Center, one of the institutions in Seoul that provides a mock funeral to the public free of charge, was packed last Wednesday with participants waiting to grasp some insight into what awaits at the end of the road.

Although the method is somewhat unheard of, the center has gained much popularity over the years as the nation continues to struggle with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and the elderly’s interest in “well-dying” -- a way to end life with dignity -- is growing.

A participant takes a photo for the mock funeral service at the Hyowon Healing Center in Seoul last Wednesday.

The experience of dying began by taking a photo for the funeral. People stared at the camera with awkward facial expressions or humorous smiles. “It was weird,” said Kim Min-sung, a student participating in the program. “I have taken a lot of selfies and photos, but I didn’t know whether to laugh or look earnest.”

After partaking in a short instructional lecture and video, the participants received their photos and were led upstairs through a dark and eerie staircase by a man dressed as a “jeoseung saja,” the Korean version of a grim reaper, into a dimly lit room filled with coffins and chrysanthemums.

After an instructional lecture and video, participants are led into a room filled with coffins.

Here people dressed up in shrouds and solemnly wrote their last will to their loved ones, while some read their will aloud.

Participants change into their shrouds before going inside the coffin.
A participant writes her last will.

“I am sorry for being such a bad daughter and sister,” said a participant. “I know I was rude from time to time and used bad words. I regret that now, and I wish you all forgive me and know that I have always loved you all.”

Another participant said, crying, “My son, the moment you were born into this world, you became my most important treasure. It is with a breaking heart that I have to leave you behind. Please take care of your father, and I hope that you will remember me always and cherish the memories that we made.”

A participant wipes off tears while reading her last will.

After a sizeable portion of the group read their farewells, the lights went out, and they got in their coffins and lied down.

The participants were left encased in utter darkness and silence for at least 10 minutes.

Participants lay inside their coffins, waiting for the coffin to close.

“The coffin was narrower than I thought as it was not for living people,” said Choi Eun-mi, 39, a mother who participated in the event. “While I was lying inside the coffin, I felt like I was suffocating and the fear of being alone and the desire to open the coffin and just run out intensified.”

Choi went on to say that after a while, however, she felt a sense of peace that she had rarely felt before, and her life flashed before her like she was watching a film.

“Even the moments I had forgotten, memories that had made me feel happy, sad, and frustrated came back to me vividly,” Choi said. “The 10 minutes, which I believed would feel like an eternity in the beginning, was too short for me to recollect my life.”

An employee dressed as the grim reaper closes the coffins.

After the 10 minutes had passed the lights came on, and the coffin lids were opened.

“Leave all the bad things that make your life miserable and hard in the afterlife,” shouted Jeong Yong-mun, the director of the Hyowon program. “You are now reborn.”

It took the participants a few minutes to adjust, but they were soon conversing with their friends and colleagues about their afterlife experience.

“I realized the importance of life,” an elderly participant said. “I want to go home soon and see the faces of my family. From now on, I will express my love for them more frequently.”

Participants emerge from their coffins. Many said the experience has made them gain a new perspective on life.

Director Jeong said visitors vary, from people who are grabbing straw at the edge of life to those believing that death is just days away, and some who want to focus more on their lives.

“While everyone gathered at the center for different reasons, they all leave with similar enlightenment,” Jeong said. “The enlightenment is that life is precious and that death is also something that we have to prepare for.”

Since the center opened in 2012, more than 24,000 people have gone through the fake funeral. Jeong stressed that Hyowon Healing Center would continue to provide people with the correct perception of death and allow those who face their last days on earth to have some closure and practice before the end.


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