Funerals downsize as households, attitudes shift

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Funerals downsize as households, attitudes shift

When Mr. Kim lost his mother in March to complications from chronic heart disease, he and his siblings agreed to fulfill her final wishes.

Having spent her last years limited to a hospital bed, Kim said he was instructed to hold the funeral as humbly as possible, ditching all lavish procedures traditionally considered the norm in Korea.

“We had talked about this before when she was alive, lying in bed,” said Kim, 47. “When I informed my friends and coworkers about her death, I requested they not send any wreaths. Our family chose to respect her belief that flower arrangements would be meaningless to both us and the sender.”

Workers in the local funeral industry claim that as more Koreans have opted in recent years to live in nuclear family households - as opposed to the extended family system in which more than two generations live together under the same roof - much of the formality in funeral ceremonies has fallen by the wayside.

“People used to think that treating the dead with utmost devotion was simply polite,” said Han Yeong-il, who heads Chaeum, an agency providing funeral services. “We’re now seeing more people focusing instead on the process of remembrance, by gathering only close relatives and friends.”

Park Tae-ho, a representative from the Korea National Council for Cremation Promotion, added that many aspects of funeral services that are so embedded in Korean society actually originated from Japan. He said the Japanese tradition only entered Korea during the 1910-45 colonial period.

Statistics from the Seoul Medical Center, a major venue for local funerals, attest to this phenomenon. Information available on all the funerals held this year up to November shows that 11.3 percent lasted only two days, up from 9.3 percent in 2013 and 8.9 percent in 2012.

The trend has definitely been noticeable, said a source from Korea University Guro Hospital, who explained that two-day processions have increasingly replaced traditional three-day funerals - nearly one in every 10 funerals this year at the hospital lasted two days.

“Holding a funeral for only two days meant that the person who died had no family or that the cause of death was accidental,” the source said. “But over the past few years, a growing number of ordinary people who don’t fit into either category are saying they want to downsize the funeral process from three days to two.”

Kim Yoon-jo, whose father died in October at the age of 93, said financial issues were mainly what prompted him to neglect tradition.

Lamenting that basic funeral costs have reached upwards of 1 million won ($850) per day, the 49-year-old admitted that he and his brothers felt overwhelmed by having to pay so much for their father, who lived in the suburbs and had very few acquaintances.

“[We added up all the extra expenses] including food and cremation and realized we’d be spending tens of millions of won [if we were to hold the funeral over three days],” he said.

BY KIM SUN-MIN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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