The high cost of dying

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The high cost of dying

Gong Kyung-joon, a 54-year-old pharmacist in Bundang, becomes more than annoyed whenever he talks about a funeral.

In October 1999, Mr. Gong's father-in- law died and the body was placed in a mortuary service at a hospital in Bucheon. When Mr. Gong was about to purchase a su-ui, the traditional Korean funeral clothing in which the deceased is dressed, mortuary officials strongly urged Mr. Gong to buy the clothing and other necessary funeral items directly from the hospital service.

"They told me that I had to buy an Andong po su-ui, which costs around 6 million won ($5,000). When I asked if I was contracted to do that, they told me no. But I had to argue with them for quite a long time. It was not a pleasant experience."

In the end, Mr. Gong was able to buy a su-ui from another manufacturer for 1 million won. "I had to do that because the su-ui the mortuary wanted me to buy was just too expensive and I had to cover other expenses as well."

A su-ui is made of pale-colored linen, and during a funeral immediate family members dress in other traditional outfits called sang- bok, which resemble the Korean outfit called hanbok. The difference is that sangbok comes in just two colors: white or black.

A su-ui is buried with the deceased, while the sangbok is burned at the end of the funeral by the relatives or given back if rented from a mortuary service.

A su-ui is put on a cleansed body to pay respects. Traditionally, the su-ui is to be manufactured during a leap month, also called yoondal, in the lunar calendar. The belief is that this month brings good luck. In Korea, marriages or moving days are often chosen during this month as well.

Sangbok can be rented, but a su-ui can only be purchased because it never leaves the the deceased.

A su-ui is made in different regions of the country and usually bears the name of the region where the product is manufactured. A su-ui from Sunchang, for example, is called Sunchang po.

A traditional su-ui usually consists of 20 pieces that are designed to cover a body from head to toe. For instance, for the head, there generally are two pieces needed -- a face cover and a cap.

Korean funeral customes date back hundreds of years. Even so, as honored as the su-ui is, more and more people today are questioning its steep price.

Families who have just lost a loved one are often in a stage of shock and grief. Hence, once a hospital or mortuary has been selected, the hectic circumstances do not permit families to change the funeral location easily -- so often they don't. Relatives often have no other choice but to pay whatever they are charged --?here the funeral takes place.

Kim Suk-hwan, 44, works for a small shoe factory in Seoul. Not long ago, Mr. Kim, along with three other relatives, went in together to pay for the cost of a a single, 4 million won su-ui for an uncle of his who had died.

"I know it was for someone I loved and respected, but if I said the money came easily I would be lying," Mr. Kim says.

The body was kept at Beak Hospital in Busan for the standard three days of mourning, during which relatives and friends paid their respects. But not before Mr. Kim and the family agreed to purchase all the accessories such as sangbok, casket and flowers provided by the hospital. "We did not want to get into a quarrel with the hospital people. Someone we loved had just died."

Kim Jin-kwan, 54, who runs a funeral business in Busan that is partially subsidized by the government and aimed at a lower income clientele, such as very young couples or seniors who can't afford the high funeral-related costs, says that such cases are typical.

"Even when people are allowed to bring in their own su-ui for the funeral, some hospitals will charge a higher than usual rate for the rent of the mortuary to make up for the difference." Mr. Kim adds that he has been told about cases in which hospitals lie to families that they are out of stock for cheaper su-ui, trying to make the families buy expensive ones.

Each month, Mr. Kim says that his funeral business receives about 40 to 50 telephone complaints. Most have to do with su-ui.



The problem with most mortuary services is that often the relatives do not have a choice of which su-ui or casket they are going to use. Each funeral service has a subcontractor that supplies the necessary items needed for a funeral. According to law, any by-products that are needed for a funeral can be purchased from an outside supplier other than the one the mortuary provides. The family is only responsible for the storage fee of the deceased and the rent of the mortuary.

Nevertheless, the law is not always followed. One official at the Gang Dong Seong Mo Hospital mortuary says, "Well, to be honest, replacing goods such as a su-ui is possible, but I don't think any mortuary service would allow the usage of a casket other than the one they promote."

The most famous su-ui in Korea is An- dong po because of the region it is produced. Andong is in Gyeongsang province, where approximately 200 people have for many years specialized in producing top-of-the-line funeral clothing made from selected linens. The company's particular funeral garb was declared a cultural asset of Gyeongsang province in 1975.

Kim Taek-su, who owns a Seoul business that sells only Andong su-ui, knows fully well how much his items are in demand. "Business is good. Depending on the quality of the product, I can charge from 2.5 million won to 7 million won for an Andong po for one person."

Shrugging, he adds, "Well, of course you can opt for the cheaper ones that come mainly from China." Mr. Kim, who is from An- dong, says Chinese funeral outfits cost about 100,000 won to 200,000 won.

He has no problem justifying the high price of his goods. "An expert can produce only four Andong su-ui during one year. You do the math."

According to the National Statistics Office, about 240,000 Koreans died last year. The figure makes you wonder how all the deceased, or at least a good portion of them, could have been wearing Andong po when the material available is only good enough to be used for approximately 800 people annually.

The answer comes easily for Kim Taek-su: "I would say that 90 percent of Andong po are fakes from China, Taiwan or other regions." He adds that the existing price gaps of the well known clothing should be a reason for suspicion. "The only way to buy the real thing is to go down to Andong or to buy it from people like me."

Prices for the goods seem to vary. The Gang Dong Seong Mo Hospital in Seoul offers su-ui ranging from 4.5 million won to 6 million won. The mortuary service at the Severance Hospital at Yonsei University sells sui ui starting at 2.5 million won. At the Pyounghwa market in Dongdaemun, Andong Po su-ui are sold at one-tenth of these prices. Kim Taek-su offers another explanation for this big price difference: They are phonies.

Mr. Kim says that the process of making one Andong po is painstaking. The first step is to harvest hemp seeds in July, which were planted in April. By mid-summer the seeds have grown into plants that are about 1.5 meters to 3 meters tall. The stalks are harvested for the fiber that they produce. Counting all the other process such as coloring, there are 120 steps involved in producing this famous cloth.

"If you ask me," he says, "there is no price for such a product. The sky is the limit, you know?"

by Brian Lee

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