Throw yourself a funeral in Seoul. But will it make you happy?
By Giacomo Lee, author of the first Western novel on modern Korea, Funereal. Read more at http://giacomolee.com/
Korean author Young-ha Kim released his acclaimed debut I Have The Right To Destroy Myself in 1996. I only read its English translation a year after completing the first draft of my own novel Funereal in 2012, a book which, like Kim’s, touches upon the specter of suicide in South Korea. I Have The Right To Destroy Myself features a ‘suicide counselor’ who helps his depressed clients kill themselves, while the main character I present symbolizes the opposite, a woman who buries her suicidal charges alive so that they can overcome their depression. It is, of course, an extreme solution, but one inspired by an actual company that operates in the most affluent area of South Korea’s capital. That such a so-called coffin academyexists in Seoul won’t come as a surprise to anyone living out here in Korea like I do, nor for anyone who read Young-ha Kim’s 2014 article on suicide inThe New York Times.
‘Too many people in South Korea have outdated views of psychological illness,’ he writes in South Korea’s Struggle With Suicide. ‘Many think that when someone is suicidal he simply lacks a strong will to live; he’s weak.’ 18 years after the release of Destroy Myself, Young-ha’s article is an incisive State of the Nation which he unknowingly foresaw in his novel. If someone tells you there’s a company offering counselors for the suicidal in Seoul, why would you be surprised? The city has many secrets, many nooks and crannies hiding between all the new shops and fancy restaurants of Gangnam district. Coffin academies aren’t even the beginning. If there’s a need, then the need is being supplied as we speak. But back in ‘96, Korea was a different place. As Kim says, South Korea’s annual rate of suicide then was much lower. The Asian financial crisis had yet to start, and yet to be cured by a cash bailout that probably explains all the shiny shops and diners around the nooks and crannies that we see today, and which may even be the stem for the country having the the highest suicide rate in the whole of the industrialized world.
The idea for my own novel Funereal came from the back-end of this continuum, by an article on the aforementioned coffin academy back in 2010. Back then, living in London, I could only guess at the nature of the burials, but last year a documentary by a Japanese journalist shed light on proceedings.
A Good Day To Die: Fake Funerals in South Korea surprised me by showing not the private services imagined in my novel, as held in living rooms and offices for one person at a time, but by another way of doing business entirely. As the above video shows, the burials are held en masse. The coffins are placed outdoors in the countryside. Most surprisingly, participants are dressed in Buddhist robes and led to their graves by a shamanic figure from Korea’s past, one who would have represented death’s representative on Earth for funerary rites. All this ritual is done in a heavily Christian country like Korea, one that has rapidly shed a lot of its Buddhist character compared to other countries in Asia. This too could be another cause behind the suicide rate, as Kim notes that many replace psychiatry with religion to battle their depression. The church here often represents the only sense of community left in an overly urbanized world, functioning more as a social sphere rather than a spiritual one. A financial one too, but wealth and religion go hand in hand all around the world, not just in Korea.
But does wealth go hand in hand with death too? The use of a shaman in the fake funeral service seems to be an ode to the simpler days of the past, the spiritual in place of the material, but Korea’s shamans didn’t exactly do their work for free either. They wear a mask as Funereal’s main character wears a suit in her duties of customer service, an image to be maintained as she offers sanctity and sanity with a 21st century spin.
Shamans and the church offer hope for the future, a sense of belonging like in the mass fake burials shown by A Good Day to Die. But these things may not be enough to hold dark thoughts at bay.
Young-ha Kim ends his editorial saying he ‘could never write a suicide-filled novel (again). I would be too afraid of inspiring others to kill themselves. I look forward to the day when a writer like me can once again comfortably use suicide as the stuff of fiction.’ This set off thoughts to be dwelled upon as I wondered if my novel was utterly irresponsible, if it was the great fear Kim was worried about. But looking back on Funereal since its release, I’ve realised it doesn’t actually depict more than one suicide within its 200 odd pages. The topic is certainly discussed, but methods are not explained, and neither are deaths glorified, nor used for shock horror effects in the reader’s mind. It’s all as tasteful and subtle as an author like Kim would expect, and life is always championed above death and all its aftershock. Ultimately, suicide sits in the novel alongside the shamans and moneyed sharp suits of Seoul as yet another bad solution to Korea’s long-running struggle with mental illness.