The country’s funeral traditions have changed dramatically. More and more Koreans are beginning to prefer cremation over the traditional burial. Two decades ago, 17.8 percent of those deceased were cremated. Today, those cremated has reached more than 65 percent. A survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs showed that 79.3 percent of respondents wished to be cremated after death. They also desired their remains be scattered in lakes or on mountains instead of being kept in a vault somewhere.
Cemeteries make up 1 percent of the country’s land are and are mushrooming every year to meet growing demand. A change in people’s attitudes about funeral services and customs is desirable considering our limited land. The problem is that regulations and facilities are too few and are not keeping up with the changes in the public’s attitude. First of all, there are too few crematoriums. There are only 265 furnaces operating in 51 crematoriums across the nation.
Because facilities are hard to find in and around the capital, families have to extend the customary three-day funeral service or pay extra to have their deceased loved one cremated in more distant areas. There are only 47 furnaces in three crematoriums in Seoul and the Gyeonggi cities of Suwon and Seongnam. At least 29 should be added in order to meet growing demand.
But such plans have been stalled due to opposition from residents. The city of Bucheon, Gyeonggi, had to give up a plan it had sought since 2003 to build a crematorium last December due to strong protest from residents of nearby Guro District, Seoul. At least Seoul was finally able to set up a crematorium in Wonji-dong, southern Seoul.
Various regulations also hamper the public’s wish to return to nature in the form of ashes. It goes against Korean maritime environmental laws to scatter cremated ashes in oceans or lakes. Cremated remains also cannot be buried or dispersed near residential, industrial or commercial areas. Establishment of crematoriums in mountain areas is also restricted by various environmental requirements.
The government has finally decided to change regulations and policies to encourage cremation by supplying mobile crematories, easing environmental restrictions and subsidizing natural funeral rites. It also plans to change regulations to allow funeral rites in residential areas. We may soon the able to hold a funeral service for a loved one in the garden of the home in which they lived.