In a dimly lit room, people dressed in white burial shrouds slowly sit up inside the wooden coffins where they had been lying, enclosed, for 10 minutes. Blinking, pale and solemn, they say they thought about their past and their loved ones while inside the coffins and vow to live better lives now.
“I gained courage to live a new life,” Wang Yong-yo, 67, said, sobbing. “I thought about my dead mother ... she was really beautiful when she was young and was very generous.”
The mock funerals are part of a “well-dying” trend in South Korea, a sign that the country, once one of the world’s poorest after the devastating 1950-53 Korean War, has grown affluent enough to consider quality-of-life issues.
Supporters credit the services with helping participants map out better futures, but critics say they are nothing but money-making businesses.
A handful of companies conduct the mock funerals, and the rivalry is getting ugly. One company is planning to sue Hyowon Healing Center, which staged Tuesday’s event and leads the industry, claiming it stole the idea.
Hyowon, run by a regular funeral service company, began giving free mock funerals in late 2012 as part of efforts to promote its image. It has attracted about 15,000 visitors, ranging from middle school students to elderly people who want to know what their deaths will be like and how to prepare for the end of their lives. Since starting the program, the company says it has seen a 30% increase in the number of people signing up for its funeral home business.
Tuesday’s service drew 16 people. Before they climbed into their coffins, they listened to a lecture on life and death, watched a TV documentary on a woman dying of a cancer saying farewell to her family, and wrote their own wills.
“I’m so sad. I feel sorry (to my family) that I didn’t do anything on my third wedding anniversary and missed a party at my daughter’s kindergarten,” said Kwon Dae-jung, one of the participants, choked with tears.
Many who join the mock funerals seek relief from the stresses of modern life in South Korea, whose suicide rate tops the developed world. There is widespread tension, especially among young South Koreans, over highly competitive college entrance exams, job searches, long working hours and widening inequality.
But not all is peaceful and contemplative in the mock funeral business. Seoul-based Beautiful Life, which charges up to 50,000 won ($43) per client, says it now has less than 10 customers per month because of competition from Hyowon, which it accuses of copying its idea.
“There should be morality in business,” said Kim Giho, the head of Beautiful Life, who plans to sue Hyowon. “That’s why I want to strongly deal with them.”
Hyowon officials deny the accusation.