South Korean Fake Funerals Show Thinking About Death Can Make Living Life Better


Nov 18, 2019


Image Credit: YELIM LEE/AFP

Last week, a South Korean funeral service made headlines for offering free funerals to the living. The Hyowon Healing Centre, operational in the capital, Seoul, since 2012, hosts “living funeral” services aimed at improving people’s lives by simulating an atmosphere where they can think about their deaths. 

In the Centre’s most recent event, more than 25,000 people, from teenagers to retirees, came to participate, “donning shrouds, taking funeral portraits, penning their last testaments, and lying in a closed coffin for around 10 minutes,” Reuters reported

Among the participants Reuters interviewed after the event, many claimed to have a “new approach to life,” to have realized their own flaws, or to have gotten clarity on their professional dreams. The Centre, at its end, claims to help “people appreciate their lives, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with family and friends,” Jeong Yong-mun, who heads the healing center, told Reuters. Occasionally, he added, he has had to deter people from suicidal ideation

So, what is it about being immersed in thoughts of death that helps people get epiphanies about their lives? Research suggests ruminating about the nothingness after death can make us appreciate all that we have in life; making a comparison between life and death spurs feelings of gratitude and helps put things in perspective for many. When a commodity is perceived as being scarce, it starts to be perceived as more valuable; when thinking about death, the commodity becomes time, the perception of which as scarce can drive people to realize how little of it they have left and that they must make the best of it. 

Thinking about death can also have a host of positive psychological effects. In a 2015 study conducted by University of Kent researchers, college participants were asked to write about death or another equally distressing topic for a week, or reply every day to email questions that forced them to think about death. Sample questions included, “If you’re aware life is short and that you could die sooner than you think, how does it make you feel and how does it impact you in general?” After seven days, they were asked to fill an assessment about the extent of positive and negative emotions they felt during the time and how they felt about themselves. Researchers found that that thinking about death led participants to experience positive psychological effects. The participants in the group that wrote about death repeatedly reported “lower levels of depression, increased positive mood, increased self-esteem, and increased intrinsic motivation,” study researcher and research associate of psychology at the University of Kent, Nathan Heflick, writes in The Conversation. He adds that writing about death can also increase people’s ability to forgive others, either because they want to avoid further harm or because they want to reconcile relationships.

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Thinking about topics that evoke strong emotions, such as death, can improve mental and physical health, James Pennebaker and Janel D. Seagal, psychology professors at the University of Texas, have found in their research. They hold that “the act of constructing stories is a natural human process that helps individuals to understand their experiences and themselves.” They add, “this process allows one to organize and remember events in a coherent fashion while integrating thoughts and feelings,” which “gives individuals a sense of predictability and control over their lives.” Extrapolating the notion to thinking about death, Pennebaker’s research can shed light upon how immersing ourselves in a simulated experience of dying can inform us of how it might feel when it actually happens. This would mean the anticipatory anxiety of death would reduce and the accompanying emotions would seem more manageable. “Constructing stories facilitates a sense of resolution, which results in less rumination and eventually allows disturbing experiences to subside gradually from conscious thought,” they write. 

These positive effects, however, are dependent upon how depressed people are going into a study that forces them to think about death: people with mild depression can perhaps glean the most out of an experiment like South Korea’s, according to Heflick; people with moderate depression will also experience effects, he added. Having a highly depressed person immerse themselves in thoughts of death, however, poses a risk. 

Instead of fearing death, institutions around the world are setting up programs to help embrace it. What with the climate crisis signaling all of our impending doom, it might be a good time to stop fearing the inevitable and start living … even if it is with the help of a coffin.


Written By Rajvi Desai

Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle’s Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she’s interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team’s podcast, Respectfully Disagree.


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