South Korea's 'Coffin Academy'

The World
Updated on
The World

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The BBC just published a story on how stressed South Korean employees are learning a new away to appreciate life. Here's our 2011 feature on the nation's 'Coffin Academy.') 

In a large room, about 60 men and women slip on traditional Korean death robes made from hemp. Then they step into wooden caskets. The lids are closed and hammered shut.

This isn't a real funeral. The coffins remain closed for only about five minutes, and the pounding of nails is just for show.

It's the last rite of passage at South Korea's Coffin Academy. Students here also write their own epitaphs and eulogies. The cost is about $30 for the four-hour seminar.

Jung Joon, who came up with the idea for the Coffin Academy, said it's designed to shock people into appreciating what they have. "In America there was 9/11, in Haiti there was the earthquake," Joon said. "At any moment life can be taken away so you need to see how important it is."

Joon said he considered killing himself — more than once.

"After graduating from college I started a few businesses and they didn't work out, so I was ashamed and wanted to end my life. I tried to jump off a bridge, but that failed. Then I tried and failed to slit my wrists," he said.

It's not too surprising. South Korea has one of the world's highest suicide rates. But Joon said he finally started to realize that life was too important to throw away. "That's why I started this program," Joon said.

At the seminar, Oh Kun Young gets his portrait taken for the photo that will go on top of his casket. He said his life was going nowhere, so he came here to get a new start. Oh said the turning point was reading his eulogy in front of the others.

He said when he was writing it, he began thinking of his family, his wife and kids, and how they'd feel if he died.

"I almost started crying," he said.

Later, he said, lying alone in the closed coffin made him think about how he could start again. Kwang-mun Lee said he had a similar revelation.

"I used to think a lot about why is this person better than me, what's so good about that person. But I realized after this program what I'm good at, how I should make the best of it."

The participants at this particular program came here as part of a corporate seminar. But Jung Joon said his program typically attracts individuals who are thinking about ending it all. Some experts, though, are skeptical.

Kyooseob Ha, a psychiatrist, is president of the Korea Association for Suicide Prevention. He said mental illness and suicide are so stigmatized in Korea that people who need help often don't seek it.

"Those who want to find out the meaning of living can go to the coffin experience," he said, but he doubts that anyone who really wants to kill themselves would go.