The sad statistic that 40 people kill themselves every day is blamed on the country’s hyper-competitive society where young people are under constant pressure to succeed while the middle-aged and elderly complain of ever-growing financial burdens.
But in a strange response to the country’s growing suicide epidemic, bizarre ‘death experience’ schools are being set up to teach depressed pupils to appreciate life again, by showing them what it’s like to be dead.
They are made to sign fake wills and are locked inside coffins where they are given mock funeral services.
And at the Seoul Hyowon Healing Centre in the capital, business is booming.
Sitting between rows of coffins, with pens and paper littering small desks, the students listen as the head of the centre, former funeral company employee Jeong Yong-mun, explains that the problems we face in life are a part of life. They are told they must accept them and try to find joy in their hardships.
Among the students are teenagers who can’t cope with exam pressure in school, parents who find themselves useless after their children have left home, and the elderly terrified of being a financial burden on their young families.
South Korea has rocketed from being one of the poorest countries in the world to the 12th biggest global economic power in just a few decades.
But the sudden financial boom has come at a cost. The rapid ideological shift from collectivism to individualism, disintegrating the traditional family unit and leaving many people feeling isolated and alone.
Fewer than a third of the population still believes that they should financially support elderly relatives, according to the National Statistics Office – which suggests there is a new culture of ‘looking after number one’.
And the elderly are worried about being a burden as they are four times more likely to commit suicide in South Korea than in any other developed country.
The only country with a higher death rate is the small South American nation of Guyana, which sees 44.2 suicides per every 100,000 people. In South Korea some 28.9 people kill themselves for every 100,000, according to the World Health Organisation.
At the Hyowon Healing Centre ‘death school’ the fake funeral ceremony begins with the students having their ‘funeral portrait’ photo taken where they lay inside a coffin and wear a traditional dress.
Afterwards, they write a will or compose a farewell letter to their families, before reading their last words to the group.
The idea is to dwell on the ‘collateral damage’ of death, to think of the pain involved for their relatives left behind and consider the practicalities of their suicide.
Then the hour of death comes, and the group leader tells their students that it’s ‘now time to go to the other side’. Candles are lit, and a person dressed as the ‘Korean angel of death’ enters the room.
The students lay down in their coffins before being sealed in by the angel, at which point they are faced by the crushing nothingness of the ever-after.
They are then left alone in the dark inside their coffins for at least 10 minutes, where they take time to contemplate life from an outsider’s perspective.
Students wake up afterwards and emerge from their coffins, where, they say, they feel ‘refreshed’ and ‘liberated’ from their troubles.
They are spoken to again by head of the centre Jeong Yong-mun: ‘You have seen what death feels like, you are alive, and you must fight!’