When Dying can Lead to a Better Life.
I’ve now seen the paper tombstones. The written wills. The coffins and chants of mourning. The photos of those who chose to “end” their lives with the hopes of beginning a new or clearer one. I’ve now seen and heard the argument that in order to live a happy life, we must first die a happy death.
It’s no surprise that this relatively new practice, often referred to as a mock funeral or fake funeral, is trending in South Korea. The economic boom that took Korea from one of the most impoverished countries in the world to one of the most global and affluent ones didn’t come without its repercussions. With its long working hours, high alcohol consumption, and a culture that revolves around—if not obsesses about—academic success, Korea is also home to one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD.
When I ask Kim Gi-ho, program director and owner of Beautiful Life death experience, why South Koreans have become so drawn to the mock funeral, he says, “Unlike Westerners, Koreans are most concerned with their families and how they’re viewed by their peers. In the West, people are more individualistic and can enjoy more personal freedoms. This puts a lot of pressure on Koreans to live up to their surrounding expectations.”
Kim, a PhD in Palliative Care, started the Beautiful Life program in 2002. He operates in a Buddhist temple in the south end of Gangnam. It’s small and simple and sports a large, golden Buddha engulfed by a forest behind the temple.
“When we are mindful of death,” Kim says, “it takes us to a higher point. When we have one day to live, life is very short. Time slows down. We see our lives from a greater vantage point and this allows us to discern what is important and what is not.”
Kim stands before seven death-goers, mostly in their twenties and thirties, and asks them to think about what is most important to them. They have their pens and papers under their paper tombstone and photographs standing upright on their desks. One of the memorial quotes reads, “It was fun.”
During the break, Kim explained that the process started a week before their arrival. “If you want to really experience this kind of death,” Kim said, “you have to start preparing a week before. You have to think about your death constantly and completely empty your life. Clean your room, throw out your food, and organize everything as if you were never coming back.”
After taking their photos, receiving the lecture, discussing their lives, discomforts, fears, anxieties, and other personal matters, Kim asks them to close their eyes. He dims the lights and plays a bell recording on repeat.
“Watch your funeral,” Kim says. “Imagine everyone there. Imagine yourself in the coffin. Let death be your teacher, dying be your mentor.”
While they write their wills, I have another short chat with Kim.
“Most people focus on meaningless things,” he says. “Their minds are limited by this big cloud that is our daily lives. In the coffin, they will see their lives moving slowly. They can examine what their purpose is. They can see, clearly, what is and isn’t important to them.”
The participants are moved to a large, dimly lit room where they take a seat beside their wooden caskets on the floor. They sit cross-legged in front of a small box supporting their photo, flowers, and a burning candle. They are then given the opportunity to read a portion of their will in front of their peers.
Lee Sang Ju, a 30-year-old participant, has written his will in English. He speaks, mostly, of his family. He apologizes to them and thanks them and acknowledges their bond.
“We stay tethered through life and after,” Lee says. “You matter. I matter. And together, we defeat death.”
Traditional Korean funeral chants echo throughout the room. After a short meditation, the participants put on their death robes and entered the coffin. Their arms and legs are tied, as is tradition in Korean burial ceremonies, and their faces covered with a piece of cloth; according to Kim, this is done by mortuary workers who do this regularly to actual corpses. The lid is then shut over them, hammered down, and left alone.
Kim mostly leaves them to themselves, but occasionally he walks up to a coffin to offer a whisper. “Think about what you regret most from your old life,” Kim told them. “Think about what you want most from your new one.”
After a certain amount of time in the coffins—Kim insists on keeping the amount of time they spend covered a secret—the participants are lead back to the room to discuss their experience. Kim sits on his table and allows the “reborn” to do most of the talking. The discussion becomes very conversational and seemingly sincere, with almost everyone chiming in on each other’s comments and reflections.
Lee, the participant who read his will, translates and says that everyone has expressed satisfaction, and one of them mentioned wanting to bring his wife the following month.
I speak with another participant, 28-year-old Youna, who heard of the service from a friend.
“My friend took the service a year ago,” Youna says. “She realized that she needed to prioritize her husband more than anything. Even more than her kids.”
When asked about her own reasons for coming to the service, Youna says, “I want to prioritize my life.”
“I found I can’t organize anything in my life. What I got most from this is the beauty of meditation. Even if it’s just five minutes, putting aside time at the end of the day to reflect on what I gained from the day is what I need to do. This didn’t answer everything, but I see it as a very practical tool for the overall goal of gaining control of my life.”
Youna’s description of what it was like inside the coffin is “heavy.”
“The first five minutes were very dense,” she says. “They moved slowly and as I started to think more about myself, time began to speed up. Eventually, by the end, I was thinking about so much and time just flew by.”
While the aftereffects of peace, tranquility, and the silence of death reverberate throughout the room, Kim discloses a few details that reveal how not even meditation and contemplating death are enough to allow an escape from the bustle of a capitalist mega-city.
“Two to three years ago,” Kim says, “I obtained a copyright and patent for this service. People I had trained had started copying my program and taking clients away.”
Kim plans to file a lawsuit against some of these companies and hopes to retrieve the rights to what he insists is his conception. In the meantime, he plans on continuing his service and attempting to branch out internationally when the opportunity reveals itself. After all, the desire for peace and tranquility transcends all boundaries. Even death.
Address: 1055 Gaepo-dong Gangnam-gu, Seoul Korea
Cost: KRW 50,000 for individual
Contact Info: TEL: 070-4139-0337
Story By: Ali Saleh
Photos By: Beautiful Life