Mock funerals not the answer to Silicon Valley suicides

January 25, 2016 — by Olivia Lu and Eleanor Goh

Mock funerals, or classes in which participants lie down in a coffin while fully alive, are South Korea’s attempt to diminish its increasing suicide rate, currently at an average of 40 suicides per day.

The mock funerals imitate an actual funeral as closely as possible — ”the deceased” have their portraits taken, are dressed in white robes and are told to write farewell letters to their loved ones. Then, they watch videos of people who are suffering and proceed to lay in their coffins for as short as 10 minutes to as long as one hour.

The process is meant to allow its participants, often those contemplating suicide, to experience “death” while reflecting on their past. While in the coffin, they are supposed to discover a newfound appreciation for life, and at the end of their stay in the coffin, the supervisor says to them, "Now you know what death looks like. You are alive. Fight for Korea.”

While participants have claimed that a mock funeral has instantly helped them appreciate life, the effects of the simulation seem to be short term at best.

Although participants may vow to change their outlooks on life after a quick and shocking experience like a mock funeral, “solutions” such as these do not address the real root of the problem or offer long-term treatments for depression.

People like Cho Yong-tae, who was quoted on BBC, say that they realized they should live a new kind of life upon emerging from the casket, but there has yet to be a success story in which a patient confirms that his or her depression never returned since then.

There is no information available on the rate of relapse, and no follow-ups are conducted to determine whether the effects of the funeral are long-lasting. One could attend regular sessions to assess the longevity of the results — maybe every two weeks or every month. However, this would be quite costly and time-consuming, profiting only the companies that hold these funerals.

A mock funeral can cost up to $43 (50,000 won), so regular sessions could easily add up to $500 or even over $1000 a year, depending on the frequency of the goer. Additionally, if the entire process were to be repeated, one could end up spending many hours just preparing for the funeral — the time commitment would not be worth it.

According to CNN, French photographer Françoise Huguier and other critics who have attended a mock funeral believe that the simulation is just a ploy to make money rather than something effectively treating suicidal thoughts.

This impression is well supported, as the original purpose of holding mock funerals was to promote funeral services. Free mock funerals were first held in 2012 by Hyowon Healing Center in Seoul to promote visibility — over 15,000 people ranging from young teens to the elderly attended out of curiosity for what death was like. Since Hyowon’s success, other companies such as Beautiful Life have competed to lure people into participating in mock funerals, capitalizing on their curiosity or mental illness for a corporate profit.

The idea of reaching out to those suffering from depression and other mental illnesses should not be made into a competitive industry to benefit these companies. Instead, the mock funeral’s concepts of appreciating loved ones, reflecting on the past and finding value in oneself should be supplemented with more constructive methods, such as professional help.

Mock funerals operate on the assumption that depression may simply vanish after taking some time to contemplate life. The funerals also leave it up to the patients with mental illness to “figure it out” for themselves after they leave. After all, none of these mock funeral businesses offer follow-up counseling services.

The purported goal of mock funerals, to reduce suicide rates, is one that hits close to home. In the past few years, suicide rates in the Silicon Valley have risen significantly. For example, in Palo Alto, suicide rates of top high schools are four times higher than the national average, reported by NPR.

The issue has become so well known that schools on the other side of the country fear “the prospect of becoming another Palo Alto, where outsize stress on teenage students is believed to have contributed to two clusters of suicides in the last six years,” according to The New York Times. High schoolers here in the Valley are faced with the pressures of school, getting into college, extracurriculars and more, often ending up with anxiety or depression.

But instead of adopting South Korea’s mock funeral as a hasty remedy for depression in Silicon Valley, the best first step to dealing with recent suicides is to encourage individuals to get the long-term professional help they need — for instance, by visiting a licensed psychologist or therapist. By realizing that depression is not something that individuals can simply “get over” with quick-fixes like mock funerals, we can take an important step toward reducing misinformation about difficult problems like mental illness and depression.

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