South Korea Adopts New Mourning Tradition

by M-Gillies
white gloved hand holding a glass jar of beads made from cremated remains

The most frequent color of the beads produced by Bonhyang is blue-green, but pink, purple and black are also in demand.

Death in any culture has predominately become a paradox of emotions. Throughout our lives we learn that death is inevitable and that it should be approached with acceptance, on the other hand, when someone close to us dies, we are filled with grief – even as we get older, our perception of death is one of trepidation. To overcome these feelings, we’ve turned to commemorating the memory of our loved ones with keepsake memorials, from memorial tattoos to the revival of Tear Bottles.

However, for Kim Il-nam, his grief was one that he endured every day since the death of his father 27 years ago. In fact, his loss led  Kim to make a startling decision. Digging up the grave, he had his father’s bones cremated and paid $870 to have the ashes transformed into gem-like beads.

“Whenever I look at these beads, I consider them to be my father and I remember the good old days with him,” said Kim during The Associated Press interview. “As a little boy, I often fell asleep while being hugged by my father.”

A decade ago, it wasn’t considered a common practice for South Korean’s to partake in cremation ceremonies. In fact, due to superstitious beliefs, it was customary for South Koreans to practice the traditional Confucian instructions to respect dead ancestors and visit their graves regularly.

However, Kim isn’t the only one who wishes to keep loved ones close to him – even after death. With the traditional South Korean beliefs of cherishing ancestors as sacred and a common part of their funerary customs, it was back in 2000 when the government began pushing for citizens of the small, densely populated country to consider alternative means of saving space. With the rising popularity of cremation, the government began a cremation campaign which included press statements, pamphlets and radio broadcasts as a means of educating the country.

As a result of the government’s push to cremation and a law passed in 2000 requiring any body buried after 2000 a 60 year burial before the body is exhumed, cremation rates have sky rocketed. As of last year that statistics have shown that only 3 in 10 were buried.

But, for South Korea, the latest trend is seeing many turning to a company based in Icheon, just south of Seoul, where they are having their loved ones’ ashes made into Buddhist-style beads.

Using ultra-high temperatures, the cremains are melted until they are crystallized. Within 90 minutes, anyone looking to have the ashes of their loved ones made into beads, can leave with up to five cups of beads ranging in an assortment of colours from blue, green to pink, purple and black.

Though Bonhyang wasn’t the first company to originate the innovative memorial keepsakes in South Korea, founder and CEO Bae Jae-yul says he saw the potential in the idea and spent several years refining the process.

While businesses like Bonhyang have launched in the United States, Europe and Japan in the past, these companies didn’t see as much success as South Korea has, as few people regarded it as a normal way to dispose of dead bodies.

Even Kim, a retired high school principal said it took him some time to persuade his family to accept this as a commemorative way of honoring their father, “Because they thought a ghost could come to our home along with these beads.”

With additional competition continuously growing within South Korea, Bae says he is still years away from seeing a profit, however, he says, “People are moved and I feel it’s something worthwhile. I’m confident this business will flourish considerably someday.”

As the ashes-to-beads industry continues to gain more popularity, many companies saw a fluctuation in their market during a leap year. According to traditional South Korean belief, ghosts that supervise humans tend to go on vacation during a leap month, so many people in South Korea may find an opportunity to relocate graves or exhume relatives for cremation without feeling sinful.

Meanwhile, Kim who plans on exhuming his mother and making beads from her cremains soon, keeps his father’s beads nearby, praying to them frequently, and bringing some with him whenever he leaves. Currently he has given some of the beads to his five daughters.

“I’ve also told my daughters I want my ashes turned into beads,” said Kim.

Read more:

South Korean Funeral Traditions |

New Mourning Tradition


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