Coffin Academy, Use Death To Motivate Life

January 6, 2010
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imageFor Jung Joon, the moment of truth arrives for his clients as they slip into the casket and he pounds the lid in place with a wooden hammer.

Insights arise, he says, as they are confronted with total, claustrophobic darkness, left alone to weigh their regrets and ponder eternity.

A slight 39-year-old with an undertaker’s blue suit and a preacher’s demeanor, Jung is a resolute counselor on the ever-after who welcomes clients with the invitation, “OK, today let’s get close to death.”

Jung runs a seminar called the Coffin Academy, where, for $25 each, South Koreans can get a glimpse of the abyss. Over four hours, groups of a dozen or more tearfully write their letters of goodbye and tombstone epitaphs. Finally, they attend their own funerals, and try that coffin on for size.

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In a candle-lighted chapel, each climbs into one of the austere wooden caskets laid side by side on the floor. Lying face up, their arms crossed over their chests, they close their eyes. And there they rest, for 10 excruciating minutes.

“It’s a way to let go of certain things,” says Jung, a former insurance company lecturer. “Afterward, you feel refreshed. You’re ready to start your life all over again, this time with a clean slate.”

Across South Korea, a few entrepreneurs are conducting controversial forums designed to teach clients how to better appreciate life by simulating death. Equal parts Vincent Price and Dale Carnegie, they use mortality as a personal motivator for a variety of behaviors, from a healthier attitude toward work to getting along with family members.

Many firms here see the sessions as an inventive way to stimulate productivity. The Kyobo insurance company, for example, has required all 4,000 employees to attend fake funerals like those offered by Jung.

There’s another motivation: South Koreans commit suicide at the highest rate in the developed world.

The country now tops the 30 member nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the number of self-inflicted deaths, according to OECD data updated in 2009. And even as the suicide rate of many countries has fallen, South Korea’s remains high, twice that of the United States, statistics show.

Yet critics question the seminars’ value in the fight against suicide. Some suggest that the mock funerals are a how-to manual in a nation where experts say cutthroat competition and financial stress lead many to kill themselves.

“It could lead to fantasies that life in the underworld may be better than real life,” says Jang Chang-min, a counselor from the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention.

Supporters say the sessions personalize the “collateral damage” of suicide. Sitting before a space heater in his warehouse-sized classroom building, Jung denies that his business, launched in February, capitalizes on people’s fear of death.

“Some say people might get so comfortable inside the casket they’re more inclined to take their lives,” says Jung, who says he came to appreciate life’s preciousness years ago when he donated a kidney to his ailing father. “Instead, they know what awaits those who commit suicide – darkness forever.”

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

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