I archive this article on an activist who volunteer to hold a ritual for a person who have died alone.
|Jean Chung for The New York Times|
A Lonely End for South Koreans Who Cannot Afford to Live, or Die
By CHOE SANG-HUNNOV. 1, 2015
SEOUL, South Korea — In a culture in which funerals are often lavish three-day affairs with hundreds of guests, the recent funeral for Song In-sik was modest at best. It had only one guest — an activist who volunteered to hold a ritual for a person he had never met.
The activist, Park Jin-ok, placed a table of fruit, dried fish and artificial flowers before the refrigerated unit that held Mr. Song’s remains in the morgue of Sungae Hospital in Seoul. He burned incense and bowed, before the impatient mortuary director asked him to pack up and leave.
Mr. Song, 47, died in July; his body was found three days after his death, decomposing in his rented room. He was lucky to get even a makeshift funeral. A growing number of South Koreans are dying alone, with no relative willing to claim their remains and perform a ritual Koreans believe is essential to easing the deceased’s passage to the other world.
The surge in so-called lonely deaths — to 1,008 last year from 682 in 2011, according to government statistics — provides a small but poignant glimpse of how South Korea’s long-cherished traditional family structure is changing. Though South Koreans have mostly benefited from a strong economy in recent decades, families have come under strain from economic and demographic upheaval.
“Those falling behind get increasingly lonely because, unlike the poor of the old days, they see their communities destroyed for urban redevelopment,” said the Rev. Kim Keun-ho, a Christian pastor who has been working among Seoul’s dwindling hilltop slum neighborhoods, known as “moon towns.” “The poor and old have nowhere to go.”
Mr. Kim and other observers trace the problem to the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, when lifetime employment, once a given in South Korea, evaporated. Many who lost jobs then never recovered, as an already fast-paced society got even more competitive.
Now in their late 40s or older, some of these unfortunates are found sleeping in cardboard boxes in Seoul’s subway stations or underpasses — scenes reminiscent of the desperate years after the Korean War.
Their fall symbolizes the crumbling of a Confucian social contract Koreans have lived by for ages. Parents spent all their earnings for their children’s success, and in return counted on their support in old age. Now, many older Koreans find themselves without retirement savings or children capable of supporting them.
On the question of whether they had relatives or friends to depend on in times of need, South Koreans ranked at the bottom of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to its annual “How’s Life?” report, released in October. The social support was the lowest among South Koreans who were 50 or older.
“A society that lets its poor and abandoned die alone and leave without a funeral is itself dying at its heart,” said Mr. Park, whose organization Nanum & Nanum is one of a handful of civic groups that hold simple funerals for those who die alone. “They spend their last days fearing their remains will be treated like trash.”
The activists say that one of the greatest fears of the poor is to die without being given a proper funeral — the ultimate sign of life on the margins.
In South Korea, a family’s standing in the community is measured and flaunted during a loved one’s funeral, by how many guests honor the invitation and how long they stay. Hundreds of relatives, friends and former colleagues may show up at a funeral hall, bowing before the deceased’s portrait, nestled in a bed of freshly cut white chrysanthemums.
Guests often sit on the floor, chatting — some lingering overnight — while the family plies them with food and drink. Long lines of wreaths with silky ribbons bearing their senders’ names spill out of funeral halls, and guests often bring cash in envelopes to help the family with expenses. The government tries to limit how much public servants can accept or donate, fearing corruption.
But for poor South Koreans, such an event is out of reach. Some cannot even retrieve their relative’s body.
“Especially in the case of elderly people living alone or the homeless, survivors in the low-income class don’t claim the family member’s corpse because of the economic burden of a funeral,” said Kim Jae-ho at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
For the past six years, Choi Jeong-woong, 71, a divorced Vietnam War veteran, has lived alone in a $220-a-month flophouse — in the words of Mr. Kim, the pastor, “the loneliest place in South Korea.” Many of the residents there spend their last days in rooms so small they can fit only a narrow bed. Mr. Choi said he had no relatives to hold a funeral for him.
“I used to catch up with friends from my Vietnam days,” said Mr. Choi, whose hands shook badly. “I don’t anymore because I don’t like spilling food in public.”
South Korea has one of the fastest aging societies in the world, with those 65 or older now accounting for 13.1 percent of the population, up from 3.8 percent in 1980.
Caught off-guard, the government is scrambling to strengthen the social safety net, but benefits remain paltry.
The 2015 Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index, released in October, measured the retirement income systems of 25 major economies and ranked South Korea 24th, with only India ranked lower. Last year, only 45 percent of South Koreans between 55 and 79 received pensions; their monthly payout averaged $431, or 82 percent of the minimum cost of living for a single person, according to government data.
About 30 percent of older South Korean families have a monthly income below the absolute poverty level. But they can get welfare only when they can prove that their family is unwilling or unable to support them. Many reject that option because they find it too embarrassing to reach out to relatives they have not contacted for many years.
And one out of every four elderly people in South Korea has depression, according to a study published by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs in September. As a group, their suicide rate is double the national suicide rate.
When people die alone, the police try to locate relatives and determine whether they will claim the remains — a process that can take months, as it did in Mr. Song’s case — before cremation. In the same mortuary was the body of a man discovered in his room two and a half years after he hanged himself.
Fear of such a fate bothered Ham Hak-joon, 87, whose small bus company went bust during the financial crisis of 1997-98. He lives alone in a $130-a-month rented room in a rundown neighborhood.
His burden was recently lifted when Nanum & Nanum agreed to hold his funeral.
“I am prepared now, ready to die,” he said, his eyes fixed on a small portable TV, one of his last connections to the broader world, especially after his arthritic legs made it increasingly difficult for him to venture out.
A version of this article appears in print on November 2, 2015, on page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Saying Goodbye, When No One Else Will. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe