Today is All Souls Day, or as it’s better known these days, the Day of the Dead.
Back in the day, we didn’t have all the cool imagery, the plaster of Paris skeleton mariachi bands. None of the good stuff. For us, it was more of less let down day. We’d had Halloween. Then All Saints Day, which as a Holy Day of Obligation, so we had to go to Mass in the a.m. But then we had a glorious day off! And a day off when The Pubs had to be in school. Ha-ha!
Then All Souls Day rolled around, giving the nuns another opportunity to beat on us to pray for all the souls sitting around in Purgatory. And, or course, another opportunity to remind us that we were all going to die. (That may be a shock that comes in their late middle age to some folks, but no one got out of first grade in parochial school of my era without being fully aware – and reminded on a regular basis – that they were doomed.)
Ah, but now we have the Day of the Dead, where we can all go and culturally appropriate and pretend to be dancing around in our bones.
I’m fine with making merry with death. There’s enough of it going around that we all should cast at least an occasional good-humored eye on it.
But, I wonder, how do other cultures – those whose inhabitants didn’t have nuns beating on them, and who may not be aware about the awesome Mexican approach to it – handle death.
In Korea, they apparently provide folks the opportunity to hold a mock funeral for themselves.
Now, I was aware that in Japan, many young women have fake weddings for themselves so that they can get what they really want out of the day: fancy dress up, lots of pictures, and gifts. No messy groom in sight. But I wasn’t familiar with the mock funeral.
Hyowon Healing Center in Seoul runs such a program, with financial backing from a funeral service company. After an instructional lecture and video, participants are led into a dimly lit hall decorated with chrysanthemums, where they sit, often tearfully, beside caskets and write their last testaments. Then they put on burial shrouds and lie down in coffins.
A grim-looking man dressed in a black robe, “the Envoy from the Other World,” hammers the lids closed. The participants are left encased in utter darkness for 10 minutes – which can feel like an eternity.
“There was not a single ray of light coming in, and how I cried in the dark, suffocating coffin,” a recent participant wrote in a blog post. (Source: NY Times)
Many of those who participate have a terminal illness; others have had suicidal ideation that they want to shake off. But get this:
Businsses send employees as part of a motivational program.
I have endured plenty of “motivational” corporate programs over the years. And, in truth, I’d probably rather attend my own funeral than write and perform a company cheer, make a helicopter out of Tinker Toys, fall back blindfold into a colleagues arms, or sit back to back with someone and confess some deep dark secret fear you have. (“My secret fear is having to attend another motivational session…”)
But the Hyowon program is all about being reborn, signing a new lease on life. Or business, I guess. (“I’ve now see the dark. Errrr, the light. And I will no longer think cynical thoughts about my company.”)
I found an earlier article on this practice, which also featured Hyowon, and focused on the work of French photographer Françoise Huguier, who has used the center and mock funeral participants as a subject for her work. After the coffins open:
"The head of the center tells them: 'Now you know what death looks like. You are alive. Fight for Korea,' " Huguier said.This is a uniquely South Korean experience, she said. Other places have different relationships with death. Anywhere else, "You would go to a psychologist, but you wouldn't live this experience," Huguier said. It works because they're in a group, sharing the experience, she said. Otherwise, a person who laid down in a coffin "would look like a mad person." (Source: CNN)
Is it just me, or does “Fight for Korea” sound a bit more North Korea than South Korea?
And I really don’t think that being in a shut coffin for 10 minutes qualified as ‘now you know what death looks like.’ For one thing, when you’re closed up in the coffin for real, you’ll actually be dead, not faking it. Not to mention that, having seen death up close and personal, being your regular old self in funeral clothing is not exactly what death looks like.
But I guess if these mock funerals ward off suicide, a big concern in South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate of the OECD countries, then it’s worth it. However,
Huguier said she doesn't believe the experience will reduce suicides; it felt to her like a business designed to make money. But it could help those who believe in it, she said.
The Times article said that Hyowon doesn’t charge for these programs, but they are sponsored by a funeral services company. Maybe a loss leader. A try and buy. (“I had such a good experience at my fake funeral, I think when the time comes I’ll use ‘em.”)
Just like with the Japanese mock weddings, participants in the funerals dress up in funeral costumers and have their pictures taken. Maybe they charge for the pictures and the funeral duds?
I don’t see American funeral services companies jumping on this particular bandwagon. (Maybe juggernaut’s a better word.) Although going to your own funeral might become the thing, if a certain someone is elected next week.
In the meantime, we have the Day of the Dead, rictus smile, ghoulishly and garishly staring us in the face.
Works for me.
And a tip of Day of the Dead sombrero to my sister Kath, who pointed this story my way.