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South Korea

Korean diocese to honor those who die lonely deaths

Hundreds of lonely and elderly South Koreans die solitary deaths each year, government data shows

Korean diocese to honor those who die lonely deaths

An elderly woman receives a Covid-19 vaccine in Seoul on April 1. More South Korean people are dying lonely deaths without the support of relatives. (Photo: AFP)

A Catholic diocese in South Korea has paired up with a local government body to organize funerals and commemorative services for those who die lonely deaths.

Suwon Diocese and Suwon city administration inked a memorandum on July 22, reports the Catholic Times of Korea.

The agreement was signed by Father Kim Chang-hae, director of the social evangelization bureau of Suwon Diocese, and Suwon mayor Yeom Tae-young.

The ceremony was also attended by Pastor Im Young-seop, president of the Suwon Christian Federation, Se-young, president of Suwon City Buddhist Association, and Kim Dong-joo, director of Won Buddhism, a syncretic Buddhist religious movement in Korea.  

The joint venture seeks to ensure dignified burials and memorial ceremonies for people who die lonely deaths and have no relatives to claim their bodies or to perform final rites. Until now, such people had been cremated by the government, mostly without religious rites.

Under the deal, Suwon Diocese will organize funeral and commemoration ceremonies and Suwon city authority will finance the cost of disposal of the body and the funeral service. If the religion of the person is confirmed before burial, the funeral service will be held according to their faith.

I hope that this project of caring for the poorest of the poor will continue through active cooperation between local governments and religious institutions

Suwon city authority will designate a hospital mortuary as a funeral home, while Suwon Diocese will hold an annual memorial service for all those who died lonely deaths.     

Father Kim said the diocese is proud to be part of this humanist effort.

“I hope that this project of caring for the poorest of the poor will continue through active cooperation between local governments and religious institutions. I am very proud that the Diocese of Suwon is able to participate in this great project as a religious institution,” Father Kim said.

Mayor Yeom expressed gratitude to religious institutions for helping the cause.   

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“I will support the commemoration of the deceased without any relatives or who cannot have a dignified funeral due to poverty. Thank you for your interest and cooperation,” he said.

The signing of the agreement comes after Suwon Diocese participated in a "joint memorial ceremony for the unrelated dead” for Gyeonggi-do province in May. The diocese then decided to take a lead with its new initiative, Catholic Times reported.

Media reports and government records suggest a rising number of people are dying lonely deaths in South Korea.

Referring to data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Korean broadcaster KBS World reported in October 2018 that 3,300 people died solitary deaths in the country in the previous five years.

Despite South Korea being an economic powerhouse, about 16.7 percent of its people live below the poverty line

A report from the ministry in March that year showed Koreans’ views on death and funerals have changed markedly over the decades. Some 86 percent support cremation, which accounted for 82.7 percent of services in 2017 from just 20.5 percent in 1994.

For years, Korean had been accustomed to traditional three-day funeral rites with hundreds of guests and visitors, strongly influenced by the country's Confucian heritage.

The tradition is declining fast due to high rates of elderly poverty and an explosive increase in the number of single elderly households, according to Hankyoreh, a center-left newspaper.

Despite South Korea being an economic powerhouse, about 16.7 percent of its people live below the poverty line, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2019, ranking South Korea fifth among 33 developed nations for relative income poverty.

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