SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean service offers free funerals – but only for the living.
Participants are seated inside coffins during a live funeral event as part of the Dying Well Program, Seoul, South Korea, October 31
More than 25,000 people are have been involved in a mass funeral at the Hyowon Healing Center since he opened in 2012, hoping to improve his life by simulating his death.
"Once you realize death and relive it, you take a new approach to life," says 75-year-old Cho Ji-heh, who is attending a recent funeral as part of a "dying well" program offered by her senior center for well-being.
Dozens took part in the event, from teens to retirees, drawing shrouds, making funeral portraits, writing their last wills, and lying in a closed casket for about 10 minutes.
University student Choi Jin-quo said that his time in the ark helped him realize that too often he views others as competitors.
"When I was in the coffin, I wondered what the benefits were," says the 28-year-old, adding that he plans to start his own business after graduation rather than trying to enter a highly competitive job market.
South Korea ranked 33 out of 40 countries surveyed in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Better Life Index. Many younger South Koreans have high hopes for education and employment, which have been suppressed by a cooling economy and rising unemployment.
"It is important to learn and prepare for death even at a young age," said Prof. Yoon Yun Seal, a physician at the pathology department at Asan Medical Center, who wrote the book on death.
In 2016, South Korea's suicide rate was 20.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, nearly double the world average of 10.53, according to the World Health Organization.
Hyowon Funeral Home has begun offering live funerals to help people appreciate their lives and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with family and friends, said Yong Yong Moon, who heads the treatment center.
Yong said he was heard when people put up with the funeral of a relative, but was saddened that they waited so long.
"We don't have forever," he said. "That's why I think this experience is so important – we can apologize and reconcile earlier and happily experience the rest of our lives."
Sometimes he discourages those contemplating suicide.
"I chose those people who asked themselves if … they could actually commit suicide, and I overturned their decision," Yong said.
The personal message was voiced by Choi.
"I want to tell people that they matter and that someone else would be so sad if they didn't," he said, wiping away tears. "Happiness is in the present."
Report from Daewoung Kim and Youngseo Choi. Writing from Minwoo Park. Editing by Josh Smith and Karishma Singh