Dying well is the best revenge

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Dying well is the best revenge

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As part of a “well-dying” program on April 22 at the Nowon Cultural Arts Center, northern Seoul, elderly participants voluntarily climb into a wooden casket to experience what it’s like to be at their own funerals. By Oh Sang-min


For young people who enjoy going to the gym, eating healthy and doing yoga, nothing is more important than the “well-being” movement.

But Koreans above a certain age are starting to get interested in “well-dying,” a movement that encourages people to prepare for their own deaths well in advance to make sure their ends are comfortable and dignified.

The movement is slowly picking up steam in Korea with people attending “well-dying” lectures, participating in plays on the topic and even spending a few minutes in a closed casket.

On April 22, about 100 people in their 60s and 70s attended a program at the Nowon Cultural Arts Center that has been offered by Seoul’s Nowon District Office since 2007.

“This ‘well-dying’ course is really valuable, because without it, we wouldn’t have realized how important preparing for death is,” said homemaker Jeong Ha-geun, 61. “I think this course helped me not only think about death but reflect on my entire life as well.”

After a lecture on the subject, an event started that allowed participants to climb into one of two wooden caskets for 30 seconds. The goal is to have them experience what it’s like to be at their own funerals. Workers from the SahmYook Medical Center in Hoegi-dong, northern Seoul, helped the participants into a white shroud and shut the casket lid as a line of elderly people waited their turn.

“When I got into the casket, I felt my heart beating fast and imagined my children crying outside, which made me feel sad,” Jeong said after the experience. “But suddenly, I became reflective about my life and thought about how greedy I’ve been and how I still have so much to teach my children about life, such as honesty.”

Lee Ho-won, 68, another participant, said this wasn’t the first time for him.

“Before the center started this program, I had taken ‘well-dying’ programs arranged in 2006 by SahmYook Medical Center,” Lee said. “After I saw my wife’s mother die so gracefully after arranging everything from her life and bequeathing all her belongings to her loved ones - even her old and humble spectacles - I decided [I wanted] to die like her.”

Sahmyook University nursing professor Kang Kyung-ah, who has lectured on the topic since 2007 in cooperation with Nowon District, said these programs try to educate people not only about death, but about the value of life.

“Ironically, the purpose of a well-dying program is to help people find the meaning of life and, in the end, feel peace in dying,” Kang said.

“I think this class could be helpful to prevent young people from committing suicide. I may change the name to ‘a class for respecting life,’ and I have a plan to lecture young people in the future,” Kang added.

In the course, Kang also recommends older people sign a living will, which specifies what kind of life-support systems they want or don’t want when they’re terminally ill, and to look into hospice care in case they become terminally ill.

Last December, 300 monks, pastors, professors and ordinary citizens signed a “will to die” pledge at Severance Hospital in Seoul, raising public awareness about well-dying. Their pledge foreswore life-support medical treatment.

Members of the Korean Association for Death Education, which is under the Kakdang Social Welfare Foundation in Seoul, formed a “well-dying drama society” in 2009.

The society performed two plays 24 times in 2009 and 2010: “Dancing Grandma” and “Lipstick for Dad,” written and directed by filmmaker and theater director Chang Du-yee. About 20 actors and actresses were selected in auditions held in March 2009. Most of them are in their 60s or 70s and have never acted before.

“I suggested to the association we host a well-dying play to get elderly people to talk about death,” said 63-year-old leader of the society, Choi Myeong-hwan.

“All actors and actresses have been working as well-dying teachers since they retired from their previous careers,” Choi added.

Drama society members meet every Saturday to rehearse. They present the plays two or three times a month. Chang sometimes attends the meeting.

“I met with Chang and told him about our desire to mount a well-dying play,” Choi said. “Chang, who had interest in well-dying as well, was eager to join. He wrote the scripts and trained the actors almost for free.”

The society has started performing its third play, “Happy Death,” this month. The play is about an elderly woman who has cancer and signs a living will pledge to donate her organs to children suffering from cancer.

“After I got breast cancer, I have studied the well-dying movement,” said Kim Young-sook, the 58-year old lead in “Happy Death.” “I think it is meaningful to reach out to the elderly about well-dying through a play, because it’s more entertaining than lectures.”

The Korean Association for Death Education pioneered well-dying activities in Korea in 1991, and it holds a range of programs about death and well-dying, such as courses on how to become a well-dying instructor.

“When we started the programs, death was a taboo subject that couldn’t be discussed openly,” Hong Yang-hee, president of the Kakdang Social Welfare Foundation said.

Hong said about 300 students have earned certificates to become well-dying instructors. The association has 1,000 regular members.

Park Seong-geun, 60, who has been taking the well-dying course since last year, said he wants to be a professional well-dying teacher.

“Since I retired, I have been thinking of dedicating myself to society,” Park said. “I have already gave my first lecture about well-dying to 50 elderly people in early April.”

Yi Young-sook, a professor of sociology at Hallym University, said changes in society have triggered the well-dying movement.

“As more and more Korean children become reluctant to support their parents, elderly people have decided to manage the rest of their lives, including their death, by themselves,” Yi said. “And the mass media has promoted some ‘beautiful death’ concepts, such as donating organs after you die.”

“Death should not be a taboo we run away from,” said Choe Jun-sik, president of the Korea Death Research Center, an independent civic group. “It should be our last chance to complete our lives.”


By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joongang.co.kr]


한글 관련 기사 [연합]

노원구 ‘웰다잉’ 프로그램 운영

서울 노원구(구청장 김성환)는 다음달 1일부터 삼육대와 함께 평안히 죽음을 맞이하는 법을 배우는 웰다잉(well-dying) 프로그램 `아름다운 인생여행`을 열고 참가자를 모집한다고 14일 밝혔다.

삼육대 강경아 교수 등 전문가들이 강사로 나서 삶과 죽음에 대한 이해, 나 자신 이해하기, 입관 체험과 유언장 쓰기 등 이론 강좌와 체험실습을 통해 죽음을 올바로 이해하고 인생을 품위있게 마무리하는 방법을 알려준다.

프로그램은 5주 과정으로 매주 금요일 오전 10시 노원문화예술회관에서 진행되며 참가비는 무료다.

참가 신청은 오는 30일까지 구청 생활건강과(☎02-2116-4337)로 하면 된다.

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