SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - At age 62, Ha Yu-soo had begun to feel his mortality, wondering about the timing of death's soft tap on the shoulder. But why wait, he thought. Maybe he could take a test run.
Ha donned a traditional yellow hemp robe, lay down inside a casket and felt at peace -- until the somber, dark-suited attendants placed a lid on the coffin. Then Ha realized his worst fear: the eternal darkness had finally come.
"How grateful I was that this was a fake funeral, not real," he said with a sigh of relief.
"There's but one step from life to death but the difference is huge," Ha, a fire protection system inspector, told Reuters.
Ha joined around 70 other people on a "well-dying" course, run by a local district office in the northeast of Seoul. The course's motto: "Don't take life for granted."
Baek Sung-ok, an ovarian cancer patient who opted out of chemotherapy several years ago, said the experience of being in a coffin made her feel more appreciative of those around her.
"I will abandon greed to relate to my husband and love my daughters more," she said, rising from the casket.
Another activity is penning farewell letters.
"Even if I no longer exist here, please get along with your siblings and be more selfless," Kim Young-sook wrote to her four children.
MEANING FOR LIFE
Kang Kyung-ah, the seminar's instructor, said this literal near-death experience could have meaning for those from all walks of life, whether they be the elderly or young.
Suicide is a big issue in South Korea. Among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries, South Korea is ranked among the highest in the suicide ranks, with the rate rising sharply after the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997 -- and still climbing.
Online suicide pacts, the suicide of K-pop celebrities and even the suicide of a former president show the negative side of rapid economic development and a highly competitive atmosphere.
"The top cause of death for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s is suicide. These people are the working age group ... (the seminar) can change the meaning of one's life and give a chance to know oneself," said Kang, a nursing professor at Sahmyook University.
While some see the mock funeral as a way to reflect on life and prepare for death, many skeptics question whether death simulation can prevent suicide and blame some entrepreneurs for using this as a commercial event.
"Slipping into the casket is to practice dying which can happen unexpectedly at any age, but the coffin experience alone is not enough," said Oh Jin-tak, a philosophy professor at Hallym University and head of the Hallym University Suicide Prevention Center.
But Kang says participants in the well-dying course don't suffer from depression.
"Rather than preparing for death, the program makes them think about life," Kang said, adding participants come away wanting to lead fuller lives.
As the death rehearsal ends, the grim mood is over. Participants are glad to be back from the dead and start to clap and sing a song called "Happy."
"Even if someone tries this for fun, it definitely tells you something ... about death," Ha says.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence and Elaine Lies)