[INSIGHT]Misguided Opposition to Crematoriums

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[INSIGHT]Misguided Opposition to Crematoriums

Some time ago, I visited the tombs of famous musicians that were considered a must for travelers while touring Vienna, Austria. The tombs of famous musicians such as Beethoven, Mozart, Shubert, Hayden and Brahms, all of whom worked in Vienna, were placed cozily among green trees. Flowers adorned many of the graves.

The tombs of the musicians, having become a tourist attraction, were not in an independent graveyards in the beginning. The tombs of the great composers were moved to a public cemetery when one was established by Vienna city authority 100 years ago. Later, the remains of other famous musicians were also moved there.

Although famous musicians and national heroes were separately buried, other civilians were buried together in family plots. Their stone or metal coffins are buried up to four deep in one tomb. Then, beginning with the eldest, they are cremated and the ashes kept in vaults on the bottom floor.

A tomb is not in the form of a mound, but is flat, and the tombstone is not allotted to individuals but are limited to one regardless of the number of bodies buried inside the tomb. The area per tomb is much smaller than in Korea, but the pleasant landscape architecture and roads make cemeteries look like appealing parks. Families paying their respects to deceased family members also only need to go to one tomb downtown, making it very convenient.

In comparison, in Korea, we waste too much land on the burial of the dead. As of the end of 1998, 20 million buried bodies occupied more than 990 million square meters. Each tomb occupies nearly 50 square meters, which is 3.5 times more than the per capita area of residences for the living. Beginning in January, individual tombs were limited to 29.5 square meters. Still, every year, nearly 36 million square meters of land are used for new tombs.

If we continue the custom of allocating one tomb for each dead body or perhaps man and wife, a serious problem in the use of national land will arise. Before many more decades pass, it will become difficult to find any land for the use of tombs.

Reform of burial customs is a task that can no longer be postponed. Fortunately, beginning three years ago, the rate of cremations has dramatically increased thanks to campaigns waged by religious organizations and eminent people in our society, but the tradition of burying dead bodies in tombs is still widespread and stubbornly clung to nationwide.

Efforts to encourage cremation and minimize the use of land for burials should be stepped up. Campaigns should be waged to encourage family burials or other space-saving measures.

It is troubling that the construction plans of a cremation site and vaults in Seoul city are running into difficulties because of opposition from some residents and local governments. The "not in my back yard" syndrome among neighboring residents concerning the construction of vaults and cremation sites is understandable; such facilities will cause a big increase in traffic congestion, for example.

But the two facilities are absolutely necessary for Seoul residents as a group. Already, the cremation facility in Byeokje is not able to meet the demand, so Gangnam residents must pay extra fees to use facilities in Seongnam or other areas. The vaults Seoul city has consolidated in Byeokje-ri and Yongmi-ri will also be filled by March.

For rational use of national land, the government must recommend cremation and the storage of ashes in vaults. But the state must also provide the necessary facilities to people who wish to use them.

Although the opposition by district councils who cannot possibly ignore the opinion of the residents is understandable, the strong opposition expressed by district administrators is a bigger problem. Is it responsible for an administrator to champion the construction of cremation facilities somewhere in Seoul because they are absolutely necessary, but oppose the construction in their own regions?

The Seoul metropolitan government and the national government should accommodate the objections of residents, if they are more substantive than just blanket opposition, in order to minimize disapproval of the facilities. But care must be taken to avoid excessive incentives.

Eventually, more cremation facilities will have to be built in Seoul other than the one planned in Seocho-gu, and incentives could easily get out of hand without proper management.

Koreans must drastically change their burial customs; we should concentrate our efforts on making that happen.


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The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Seong Byong-wook

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