Coffins, wreaths, crematoria slots all in short supply
Covid-19 has affected countless businesses in Korea, but none have benefitted more than the funeral industry.
Mr. Yoo, who lost his father to the disease recently, said the family "barely" found a place to hold his funeral: at the Samsung Medical Center in southern Seoul. It began on Sunday but the family doesn't know when it will end, as all crematoria are booked up.
“There's nothing we can do,” the 60-year-old Yoo frowned. “There has never been such a mess like this before.
"These days, families are holding funerals for six or seven days, not the usual three days,” Yoo said. “The deciding factor for starting is when a funeral hall is free. For ending, it's when the crematoria can take you."
According to Statistics Korea, the number of deaths in Korea in January totaled 29,686, an increase of 2,457, or 9 percent, year-on-year. The spike in Covid-19 cases is considered responsible for the increase.
Daily virus deaths in Korea, which had remained under 100, reached a high of 469 last Thursday and a second-largest figure of 432 on Wednesday.
The wave of fatalities led to chaos at mortuaries and funeral halls.
As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, only one out of 82 funeral halls at Seoul's five big hospitals was available, including Asan Medical Center (20 rooms), Yonsei Severance Hospital (17), Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital (17), Samsung Medical Center (14), and Seoul National University Hospital (14).
The funeral halls are no longer putting people on waiting lists as they have run out of empty refrigerators to store incoming corpses.
“Some families are traveling to other regions to hold funerals, like traveling from Gyeonggi to Gangwon [120 kilometers away],” said a funeral director who asked not to be named. “With crematoria furnace operations told to increase to seven cremations a day per unit, some regions have gotten over the crunch. But places like Seoul, where most of the bodies are coming from, are still struggling.”
The surge in demand for cremations has led to staff shortages.
On the website of the Ministry of Health and Welfare's online crematorium reservation service Ehaneul, a recruitment notice has been posted for manpower in cremation facilities nationwide.
Industries selling funeral-related goods are seeing an unprecedented boom, and shortages are developing.
A coffin shop owner, who has been in the business for more than 10 years, said, “Coffins generally aren’t big sellers. Lately I wasn’t able to sell any because I was all sold out."
“Compared to last year, demand has exploded!”
Funeral wreaths are hard to get.
Two companies that used to deliver funeral wreaths within two hours of an order said same-day deliveries are now impossible.
In response to the recent chaos, local governments are coming up with solutions.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government said it will set up a funeral hall at the Gangnam branch of the Seoul Medical Center as a temporary mortuary to store up to 30 bodies.
"We are also considering adding three additional mortuaries that can house 40 bodies each in accordance with the increase in fatalities," a city official said.
BY CHAE HYE-SEON, SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]