Though I knew that my picture would be taken, I didn’t wear any makeup as I expected tears and thought that the experience would be as strange as it would be cathartic. Growing up as a pastor’s daughter, both terrified and in awe of God, the most defiant thoughts I ever had in times of hardship were ones of suicide—the “one sin that can’t be forgiven.”
With Korea’s suicide rate ranking first among OECD countries with an average of 29.1 suicides per 100,000 people, it’s not hard to meet someone touched by the topic. In order to combat the desire to end one’s life, several institutions (churches, community centers, etc.) have started a “mock-funeral-experience,” where you pretend to die in order to increase your desire to live. Jeong Yong-mun, founder of the Hyowon Healing Center in Yeongdungpo-gu, calls this process “heal-dying.” Hailed by several international publications as “a bizarre experience,” I had wanted to see for myself how it really worked.
I could list several criticisms of the experience from large to small, including details like having people read aloud their personal stories, cueing sad music and encouraging people to cry, telling stories of lives cut short and, mainly, I disagreed with the experience’s main focus being on family. (While I think spending time with one’s family can be important, I don’t think that factor should decide whether you live or die.) However, I can’t speak for those around me who had tears streaming down their face as they vowed to tell their loved ones “I love you” more often.
I’ve actually never attended a funeral in Korea, so I gained a few insights into the cultural perceptions of death here. I appreciated the reminders to be grateful for life and encouragement to measure one’s self worth outside of worldly titles and material possessions, but wished there was a bit more focus on the great things to see and do in life rather than on death. While I didn’t cry, I left with a mild sense that my life was okay and that I wouldn’t die of an anxiety attack from spending five minutes in a coffin. Maybe that’s catharsis enough.