When I’ve traveled to South Korea, I’ve never felt that it was a fake country. But the more time I spend researching the culture, I’m finding that there is a certain level of fakeness in the nation. Take for instance that many weddings in South Korea are full of fake guests. While fake wedding guests say a lot about the level of social pressure that South Koreans face, even more telling is that firms have sprung up in the country that offer fake funerals.
Since 2003, South Korea has had more suicides per year than any other country. The numbers show that, on average, 40 people commit suicide each day in the nation of 50 million. To put that figure into perspective, in the United States, which has a population of around 320 million, there are only 105 suicides per day. A recent study conducted by the Korean Neuropsychiatric Association found that 25% of those surveyed felt a high level of stress, with anxiety about work as the main cause for that stress. Concerns related to academic success were a close second in the stress category. A prime example of this stress occurred last week, when over 600,000 South Korean students took a national exam to determine which university they would be able to attend. The examination started promptly at 8am, with crowds of younger students gathered outside each testing center to cheer on this year’s participants. Students caught in traffic could call a special hotline to receive a police escort to the testing center. During the oral portion of the exam, which lasted 35 minutes, all flights in South Korea were halted, so as to not disturb the students.
With this type of stress weighing on people from an early age, it becomes a bit easier to see why suicide levels are so high in South Korea. That is why companies are now sending their employees to experience mock funerals. A new industry is developing to provide these services; the most established company is the Hyowon Healing Centre. Founded by Jeong Yong-mun, a former mortician, the idea is to help employees develop coping skills to handle life’s stressors before they make a fateful decision.
The fake funeral is an elaborate process that is both private and communal. Rooms at the Hyowon Healing Centre contain up to twenty coffins. To start the ceremony, each participant watches a video of individuals overcoming adversity and takes a picture of themselves wearing a black mourning ribbon. Then, while the pictures are printed, the individuals change into a white gown. They are seated next to an empty coffin where they write a ‘final letter’ to their loved ones. After composing this message, they are handed their pictures, lay down in the coffin, and a man dressed as Death slams the coffin lid closed. The ‘deceased’ are given 10 minutes inside the darkness of the coffin to reflect on their life. Despite the fact that everyone is ‘dead,’ the rooms are filled with the sounds of sobbing and muffled cries.
These fake funerals are too new to determine whether or not they keep stressed workers from committing suicide, but South Korea as a whole is willing to try anything in the search for a solution to this epidemic gripping the nation. Already, bridges and balconies are plastered with pictures of random, smiling children that are designed to deter people from jumping. At the same time, statues of individuals consoling depressed and suicidal people have appeared around common suicide locations.