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As burials sag, a dire shortage of cremation sites hits the nation

July 20,2009
Koreans who were once reluctant to cremate their relatives are changing. But there’s a problem: too few crematoria.

Today, as a growing number of people are opting for ashes rather than a grave for loved ones, crematoria across the country are failing to meet the demand.

Oh Hwan-taek, 37, a Suwon resident who lost his Seoul-resident uncle in early July, said the difficulty he experience in finding a crematorium added to his grief.

Oh first contacted Seunghwawon, a crematorium run by Seoul city government, but he was unable to make a reservation because it was fully booked. He contacted crematoria in Suwon and Seongnam, both in Gyeonggi, but they too had no room. The only option Oh had was to delay the funeral.

“It’s very unfortunate and regrettable that a grieving family cannot even conduct a crematorium service for the deceased on a planned funeral schedule,” Oh said. “The harsh reality has not only added costs for funerals but also caused extra grief to the entire family.”

Oh’s experience is not unique.

The demand for cremation is faster than the construction of crematoria.

The 23 incinerators at Seoul’s Seunghwawon were designed to handle a maximum of 63 bodies per day, but Seunghwawon recently faced over twice that load.

“Because Seunghwawon lacks crematorium facilities, many people are traveling to other regions, such as Gyeonggi and Incheon.” Chun Yoon-jin, an official at Seunghwawon said. “Because Seunghwawon receives reservations on a first-come-first-served basis through the Internet, we don’t know how many people are on the waiting list.”

Of the 8013 cremations at Seongnam Crematorium performed last year, 35 percent, or 2834, were for people who had lived in Seoul.

Seoul residents pay 90,000 won ($71.64) for cremation at Seunghwawon, but the price goes up when they choose the Seongnam Crematorium in Gyeonggi. Under the crematorium’s regulations, residents from outside Seongnam are required to pay 1 million won. Despite that, demand from residents of Seoul is not fading.

Of the 6255 bodies cremated in Seongnam Crematorium this year through July, 38 percent, or some 2377, were from Seoul.

Cheongju Crematorium of North Chungcheong is experiencing a similar phenomenon. Residents there account for 38 percent of those whose bodies are processed there, while some 42.5 percent are from people who lived in the Seoul metropolitan area.

Jeong Si-tak, a Pyeongtaek resident in Gyeonggi, had travel to Cheongju early this month to have his mother cremated because he had failed to book a crematorium in Gyeonggi.

According to the Health Ministry, the nationwide cremation rate exceeded 62 percent among all deaths last year up from 46.3 percent in 2003.

The country’s capital is also seeing a steady rise in cremation, with the percentage reaching 70 percent last year from 61 percent in 2003.

Though Seoul’s Seunghwawon has 23 incinerators, crematoriums run by Seongnam and Incheon have 15 each. Suwon has only nine.

Experts said the chronic scarcity in crematorium facilities will not be solved overnight because new sites are often opposed by neighbors.

Residents vehemently block new crematorium construction projects, arguing that the smoke, odor and dreary facilities make a new crematorium undesirable.

They also express concern about environmental pollution. A government official said expanding cremation capacity by building more facilities is necessary, but the idea has been challenged by the “nimby” or “not in my backyard”phenomenon.

In 2001, when Seoul Metropolitan Government designated Wonji-dong in southern Seoul for the development of a memorial park that includes 11 furnace crematoria, it faced fierce opposition from residents who filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to nullify the city government’s decision. The court rejected the petition in 2007.

After the ruling, the city government said that it would resume its project, but it is making only halting progress. “Though the court ruling solved the legal issue, the project has been deferred for years because of the intense opposition from residents,” said a senior city government official who asked to be unnamed.

Seoul is not alone. Faced with opposition from local residents, Gyeonggi Province is making scant progress in building crematoria. Of 10 planned projects, Gyeonggi so far has designated only two sites in Bucheon and Yongin that will have 10 incinerators and 6 incinerators, respectively. Because local residents oppose the projects, Gyeonggi provincial government said it will request the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs to allow building crematorium facilities on Green Belt land.



By Jeon Ick-jin, Kim Mi-ju [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]





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