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.
Those who come are led to a waiting area where you fill out a form with your name, age and occupation. Then, you take a portrait photo for your funeral. While all the forms and the entire seminar are in Korean, the staff explains that there are Japanese, Chinese and American visitors who come curious about how it works and they are welcome to join for the experience (even if they can’t understand everything).
You’re led into a conference room where there’s a 30-minute PowerPoint seminar about death and suicide. It starts with a small introduction about how the “heal-dying” process works. The idea is that when people near death, they are forced to consider the things that really matter to them. Is having a good job that important? Do you really lack the necessities in life? Does it really matter that you haven’t done well in school? There is a large focus on “spending more time with family.”
There’s a ten-minute break where you pick up your portrait photo, which has been framed. The frame serves as a folder and holds a lined sheet of paper for you to write your will.
After the break, you’re led into a dimly-lit room filled with many coffins. Next to each coffin, there’s a small table with a pen. You watch a short SBS documentary about a family in which the mother dies of cancer, leaving behind a husband and three children.
Last will and testament
The lights briefly turn back on and you’re given around 5-10 minutes to write your last will and testament while a sad song plays in the background. The light dims again and Jeong walks over to several people and asks them to read their personal messages out loud.
As you step into your coffin Jeong asks you to reflect on your life and your greatest regrets. Once inside the coffin, all the lights are turned off and a man dressed as the Korean version of the grim reaper (juh-seong-sah-jah) comes and closes the coffin, enclosing you in complete darkness. He thumps on the coffin, leaving you with the ominous sound ringing in your ears.
Your “new life” begins
After five minutes, the coffin is opened and you awake to “a new life.” Jeong shows a short video on the life of Lena Maria, a Swedish woman born with no arms and only one functional foot, who sings “Amazing Grace” in Korean. You’re allowed to leave with your photo and will (but place the frame in a pile near the door).
Hyowon Healing Center
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.”