Fighting South Korea’s Suicide Crisis With Fake Funerals

By | October 6, 2016

This story is republished from MEL Magazine. MEL aims to challenge, inspire and encourage readers to drop any preconceived notions of who they’re supposed to be.

The Hyowon Healing Center in Seoul takes an unorthodox approach to treating South Koreans with suicidal thoughts  —  it acts as if they’re already dead. Once or twice a week at Hyowon, thirty or more suicidal individuals gather to plan their own funeral, say goodbye to their loved ones and lay inside of a closed wooden coffin, part of a class roughly translated as “Heal Dying.” The idea being, of course, that the more they observe the aftermath of their death, the less likely they’ll be to want to die.

The program is also meant to make a difference culturally. Suicide and depression traditionally aren’t topics of conversation in South Korea, which is a big reason why the country has had the world’s highest suicide rate for 11 years and counting. “In Korea, people tend to keep their mental problems and hardships to themselves,” explains 35-year-old Taiyun Kim, who recently attended Hyowon’s “Heal Dying” class. “And if you were to tell anyone, it would be shameful.”

In our latest MEL film, we follow Taiyun as he searches for answers to the feelings he fears could lead to him ending his life. Some of them are highly traditional (a fortune teller vows that things will get better as soon as he turns forty  —  or maybe it’s when he’s fifty). Others, however, are part of a larger trend within South Korea to begin a national dialogue about depression and mental illness. For example, he visits one of Seoul’s many “healing cafes,” where he casually shares his concerns with a licensed therapist over a latte (thereby completely normalizing the process  —  and, in turn, Taiyun’s feelings).

Most powerfully, he takes us to the Mapo Bridge, which locals refer to as the Suicide Bridge because it’s the place where dozens of South Koreans leap to their death each year. Now, though, it’s been rebranded by Samsung, the country’s megabrand-turned-guardian-angel, as the “Healing Bridge,” and covered in imagery and wisdom meant to show potential jumpers just how much they have to live for.

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