| Dirk Godder |
Seoul (dpa) – “Bid yourselves farewell,” says a sombre man in a large candlelit room among wooden boxes that look exactly like coffins.
Not long before, his audience, a dozen men and women wearing traditional Korean death robes of yellow hemp, had funereally descended the steps to the basement of the Buddhist temple, each bearing a candle and black-bordered photograph of themselves.
And now the end has come.
After each has lain down in a wooden box, their arms crossed over their chests, the lids are closed and then struck twice by what sounds like a hammer driving in nails.
In cramped darkness, they lie for about 15 minutes, during which they are supposed to reflect on their lives.
This mock funeral was the culmination of a four-hour “well-dying” seminar. The title is a play on “well-being” and is meant to drive home the message that a “good” death follows a good life. Popular since several years ago in South Korea, such seminars cater to the heart-searching among Koreans about stress.
By a theory of opposites, they are supposed to emerge with a spring in their step and a feeling that, compared to death, life isn’t too bad after all.
Participants range from high school students to retirees. And interest in the seminars is growing, according to the organisers.
Many companies sign up their employees, and associations send in parties as a membership benefit, said course instructor Kim Ki Ho, whose company Beautiful Life has been staging what it calls “pre-death experiences” since 2004 in the temple of the Buddhist foundation Nungin Sunwon (Zen Centre).
The cost is 50,000 won, or about US$45.
The practice has its critics.
Among them is Kim Chae Young, chairman of the Religious Studies Department at Sogang University in the capital Seoul.
Some players in the “mock funeral industry” are only out to make money, he said. “They’re exploiting people’s fear of death.”
Kim Ki Ho begs to differ.
“Many people come because they want to change their lives,” he said, arguing that the confrontation with death made them better understand the value of life.
Many companies see the seminars as a way to stimulate their employees’ productivity.
Another motive is to jolt them away from contemplating suicide.
South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the developed world, which Kim Ki Ho blames at least in part on the country’s hyper-competitive education system and job market.
According to official statistics, suicide was the most frequent cause of death last year in Seoul for people aged 10 to 39.
The Catholic charity Kkottongnae, located near Seoul, has been offering people the make-believe experience of their own funeral since the late 1990s, calling it “rebirth”.
Other organisers have no religious affiliation. One of the largest, the Coffin Academy, puts the focus on “emotion, synergy, business.”
After Beautiful Life’s mock mass funeral at the Buddhist temple, the 36-year-old Seoul girlfriends Park Young Yim and Kim So Yub described it as a “spiritual experience”.
None of the participants happened to be Buddhist. In a room at the Zen Centre they had answered questions about their desires and disappointments and penned a farewell letter.
Park said she had been inspired to come by the sudden death in October – from complications following surgery – of popular South Korean pop singer Shin Hae Chul, who was just 46.
“I can die at any moment and still have so much to say to my family and friends,” she remarked.
Both Park and Kim said they would recommend the seminar to others.
A young man who took part was simply looking for a kick. “I live a boring life and wanted to have a meaningful experience,” he said.