A Controversial Project In South Korea Is Trying To Fight Suicide—By Allowing People To Attend Their Own Funeral

Can staying in an enclosed coffin reverse self-destructive thoughts?

Content Warning

This article includes descriptions of suicide or self harm that may disturb some readers.

Some South Korean people are not waiting for death to experience their own funerals. In a trend that is picking up pace fast, especially in the urban areas, young people are opting to participate in their own mock funerals where they lie inside an enclosed coffin and follow all the traditional rites of a funeral in hopes of regaining an appreciation for life.

| The New York Times

South Korea has been battling rising suicide rates for years. According to Statistics Korea, the leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 39 is suicide. Academic pressure, the incessant rat race of chasing a successful career, and a growingly isolated lifestyle are only some of the reasons why young people in the country choose the extreme way out when hopelessness settles in. On the other hand, the rate of death by suicide is also very high (50.3 in every 100,000 people) among South Korea’s aged population. Senior citizens are alienated in the fast-paced modern society with very little economic and social assistance. Unable to fend for themselves both materialistically and emotionally, the elderly population of the country also considers suicide as the ultimate relief.

| OECD Factbook

Hyowon Healing Center in Seoul has been battling this growing despair for life through its unique, albeit controversial method. The company started operating in 2012, offering people a chance to experience a simulated environment of their own death. Jeong Yong Mun, the head of the center, stated that he felt heartened when he saw people reconcile at a relative’s funeral but also felt sad that they waited for too long.

We don’t have forever…That’s why I think this experience is so important – we can apologize and reconcile sooner and live the rest of our lives happily.

— Jeong Yong Mun

So what happens at these mock funerals that can potentially turn a suicidal person’s thoughts around?

After all the participants are led into a room, an instructional lecture and video is played for them. Each person clicks a funeral portrait, and then they are taken on a walk, while donned in shrouds, to the main hall where the funeral will take place. The dimly lit hall is decorated with chrysanthemums, where they sit beside their caskets, writing and then reading out their last testaments. Finally, they change into burial shrouds and lay in the coffin.

A participant getting her funeral portrait clicked | Heo Ran/Reuters

A participant reading out her final testament

A participant reading out her last testament

A grim-looking man, who acts as the envoy from the other world, “hammers” the lids closed (Not actually. The lid remains open as the man pounds on it a few times). The participants spent 10 minutes in the darkness inside the enclosed box. Recalling their experience in a blog, a participant described those ten minutes saying, “There was not a single ray of light coming in, and how I cried in the dark, suffocating coffin!

Participants lying in the enclosed coffin | The New York Times

At the end of the experience, Jeong announces to the participants, “Now, you have shed your old self. You are reborn to have a fresh start!” As the people in the room readjust after the ten minutes of deathly silence, many seem to gain a newfound outlook toward life.

The New York Times

A 75-year-old participant named Choi Jae Hee reflected positively on the whole experience. “Once you become conscious of death and experience it, you undertake a new approach to life,” she concluded. University student Choi Jin Kyu gathered a similar mindset from the funeral, finally letting go of the tendency to look at everyone as his competition. The 28-year-old wanted to start his own business rather than go down a competitive job market path.

Participants laughing and clicking selfies with their coffins | The New York Times

But according to Jeong, sometimes a few participants seem to feel a little too comfortable inside the coffin. He said he keeps an eye out for such morbid souls, who could draw a negative effect from the funeral.

There is a lot of criticism around this project in Seoul, with many considering it a spectacle with short-lived effects. Song Hun, a post-graduate student, voiced her concern saying, “Although people who pretend to die may have an appreciative attitude towards life, I think it will be only for a little while, and it cannot be sustained for a long period of time. It’s just a small event, not healing.” Mrs. Emma, who lost her sister to suicide, felt that this project was nothing but shameful for misdirecting the emotions surrounding suicide.—“People think of suicide not because they appreciate life but because they are tired of living.”

A TV Commercial for Hyowon Healing Center

Regardless, over 25,000 participants had already joined this funeral project by 2019, with most of them reporting a positive change in their mindset. Talking about his end goal with this living funeral project, Jeong said, “I want to let people know that they matter and that someone else would be so sad if they were gone…Happiness is in the present.

Source: Culture Trip, The New York Times and Reuters