South Koreans experience what it's like to die -- and live again

For 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.

Jung, a slight 39-year-old with an undertaker's blue suit and a preacher's demeanor, 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 into 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 the coffin on for size.

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 of its employees to attend fake funerals like those offered by Jung.

There's another motivation: South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the developed world.

The country 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, ruthless 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 with the Korean Assn. for Suicide Prevention.

Supporters say the sessions personalize the "collateral damage" of suicide.

"It's another method we have to teach people that it's not a good idea to take your own life," says Lee Sang-kyu, a neuropsychiatry professor at Hallym University near Seoul.

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."

Many weep openly even at the prospect of lying in the casket, Jung says. Others insist on leaving the coffin lid cracked open. A few are so fearful, they can't go through with the exercise.

The casket rehearsal is the day's final chapter. Clients must first undergo hours of soul-searching exercises.

Arriving with 17 colleagues from his Seoul insurance company, Song Jong-min watches as co-workers laugh nervously while their photos are snapped beneath a wreath of plastic flowers. They are told that the photos will later grace their caskets.

"We joked about it on the bus ride down here," says Song, a stocky 27-year-old with tousled black hair and a navy peacoat. "But now that we're here, I guess it's not so funny."

He glances down at the casket room. "It's weird," he whispers. "Normally, you go to other people's funerals -- not your own."

Standing at a pink-and-white wooden pulpit, Jung gives a two-hour lecture about life and death. He points out that the end can come at any time and asks the group for a "bucket list" of negative personal traits they would like to lose while they have the chance.

At first, the 12 men and six women in the class distractedly check text messages and make bathroom runs. One woman pulls out a mirror to reapply her makeup.

Slowly, as Jung asks clients to talk about their own families, the gravity of the subject hits home. The room goes silent. Several women reach for tissues to dab away tears.

During a break, Kim Myung-hee, 61, paces the near-empty classroom, dreading the exercises yet to come. "I'm just so afraid of being inside that casket," she says. "I have a heart condition."

Later, with lights dimmed, Jung plays a funeral dirge as the participants write their epitaphs on paper with the image of a tombstone.

Kim sobs loudly. "Suddenly, I feel so very old," she says as she writes, a candle burning at her side.

Jung then asks students to imagine their last meal. "Think about whom you want to have that meal with," he urges. "Say goodbye to your loved ones."

He leaves for 30 minutes as the students bend over their work.

"It feels as if the end of this letter will be the finish line of my life," Song writes. "When I imagine if my family and the woman I love will wet this letter with tears, I can't keep back my own tears."

Nearby, Kim continues to weep.

"To my husband, who has always loved his reckless, intractable wife," she writes. "When I was trying to run away, you always embraced and hugged me. Honey, you were always there. Cremate me and bury me under a tree near some water."

Minutes later, the tears stop and the terror begins.

The students file into the chapel and take their places before the rows of empty coffins. Standing before a banner that says "Rest in Peace," several read aloud their final letters to family.

One gray-haired man says he was a lousy husband. A woman warns her spouse not to drink too much after she is gone.

Then, it's time.

One man gulps as Jung instructs them to don South Korea's traditional yellow hemp death robe. Photos and epitaphs are placed at the head of each casket.

One by one, the clients lie with eyes wide, waiting for the lid to close and the darkness to come. A man in a blue suit insists on a crack through which to breathe. A woman suddenly rises and announces that she can't do it.

The chapel goes quiet. Ten minutes and a seeming eternity later, Jung breaks the silence. "When you open your eyes, there will be a new life starting, which is different from yesterday."

Suddenly, the mood lightens. People hug. Brushing off his pants, Song says he was unnerved by the darkness.

"I didn't like it," he says. "It felt like being suffocated."

But Kim beams. Despite her fears, she describes a feeling of safety and elation she likens to being back in the womb.

"When the lid closed," she says, "it wasn't even dark in there."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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