Daegu, South Korea. Laid out in a candlelit, windowless room, rows of sealed coffins stretch from wall to wall. A dark figure bends down among them, takes hold of a coffin lid and pulls it aside. Kim Ok-Ran, a 56-year-old food factory employee, sits up, dries her tears, collects her death certificate and rushes out. At home, her grandson is waiting to be fed.
“Living Funeral Therapy,” during which people attend their own funerals to get fresh perspective on their lives, is becoming increasingly popular in South Korea, which, with more than 30 citizens killing themselves every day, has the highest suicide rate in the developed world. Surrounded by photos of dead celebrities, groups of up to 40 participants choose their funeral garments and the digital background for the photo that will sit on their coffin, before spending 30 minutes in semidarkness, filling out the following form: “Name ____________ died ____________ at age ____________ from ____________; surviving family members are ____________, and people who knew him/her remember that person as ____________. The works left by the deceased are ____________. Epitaph: ____________.” They read out their new wills, then lie down in cold wooden coffins. As they close their eyes, an employee places a white chrysanthemum flower in their hands and closes the lid, banging away at the four corners to simulate the coffin being nailed shut.
“I think real death would be colder. And more painful”
Lim Su-jeong, 32, housewife, Daegu, South Korea
“After they banged on the coffin lid,” says Ok-ran, “the silence felt like eternity.” As bizarre as Living Funeral Therapy sounds, it seems to be backed by sound research. A 2009 study led by psychologist Nathan Heflick found that thinking about death for five minutes a day reduced depressive thoughts after only one week. A separate study found that students who were asked to write about their own death showed more positive emotions than those asked to consider the much less permanent prospect of dental pain.
The final seal of approval comes from the corporate sector. Some of Korea’s largest companies, including Samsung, Hyundai Motor Company, and multinationals, such as AIG and Allianz regularly send their employees to their own funerals – partly as a measure to prevent suicides among the workforce, and partly to motivate employees to live more fulfilling lives. Samsung is especially fond of the therapy and has made it mandatory for many employees to spend time lying in a coffin, vividly imagining their own deaths. The company has even built its own mock-funeral centre for convenience.
“Everyone has an unfounded, vague fear about death,” explains Jeong Suk-il, 44, who has run a living funeral business since 2002, “but in this experience, they let out the burdens at the core of their hearts. They can also list the people who matter to them in their life in order of importance.” Lim Su-jeong, who has participated in the session with her mother Ok-ran, realized inside her coffin that she had been neglecting her husband. “I feel like I’ve been reborn,” she says. “I want to call my husband, to tell him ‘thank you,’ and ‘sorry.’” Before she leaves, Jeong hands her a plastic electric candle as a memento of her time as a corpse. Su-jeong accepts it. “I think real death would be colder,” she says, thoughtfully, “and more painful.”