South Koreans play dead to lower suicide rate

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Sun, March 21st, 2010

In Daejeon South Korea, for just $35, you can experience death. First is a photo shoot, then a lecture on living life to its fullest. You decorate your tombstone, write a will and say your final goodbyes.

While mating, sharks and stingrays exhibit a state of paralysis called tonic immobility, similar to the idea of “playing dead”. In South Korea, a motivational seminar called Coffin Academy allows clients to play dead in the hopes of rejuvenating their lives.

In a candlelit chapel, with your new portrait on a flowery altar, you don a yellow robe and climb into a coffin. Staff pound the lid shut, and for five minutes, you are dead.

This is Coffin Academy, a motivational South Korean seminar begun last year by a 39 year-old man named Jung Joon. The intent of the program is to inspire people to lead more fulfilling lives by simulating death. “The moment I got out of the casket I felt like I was born again,” a Korean business man told Nightline reporter Clarissa Ward earlier this month, “I’m going to go give my wife a big hug.”

Much like the Catskills or Carmel, the academy has become something of a retreat, where both the unfulfilled and those down on their luck and successful business people—forced by their companies—come to rejuvenate. But South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the developed world, and some critics worry that the fake funerals are a “how-to manual” for suicidal individuals, a January L.A. Times article points out. “It could lead to fantasies that life in the underworld may be better than real life,” argues Jang Chang-min, a counselor with the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention. Yet founder Joon argues that the experience is more of a deterrent, enlightening people on what actually awaits those who kill themselves, “darkness forever.”

The virtues of Joon’s business may be in dispute, but faking death is a legitimate means of survival among some animals. Sharks and stingrays exhibit a state of paralysis called tonic immobility, which scientists believe is carried out during mating. It lasts for about 15 minutes, during which time the dorsal fin straightens and muscle contractions become more relaxed. Shark researchers can induce the state to study them. With tiger sharks, gently placing ones hands on either side of the animal’s snout, just beneath the eyes, initiates tonic immobility.

Great white sharks are less responsive to this approach, but in a rather dramatic case from the late 1990’s, a female killer whale was observed intentionally inducing tonic immobility in a great white by holding the animal upside down and causing it to become still and suffocate to death. Off New Zealand, killer whales employ a similar operation with stingrays. Sneaking in from above, the whales turn themselves upside down; capture the ray in their mouths and flip over swiftly, inducing tonic immobility and rendering the ray helpless. Investigators have attempted to induce tonic immobility in lizards and rabbits, but so far, results are inconclusive.

A similar behavior is known as thanatosis, which comes from the Greek noun meaning to put to death and describes when an animal intentionally feigns death to avoid predation. Since most predators stay away from dead meat, the display is often effective. Thanatosis occurs among certain wasps, beetles and crickets as well as the common opossum (hence, playing possum). Hog-nosed snakes that play dead in the face of a predator even emit a volatile foul-smelling fluid, thus simulating the liquids that ooze from a dead body.

When Nightline’s Clarissa Ward enters Coffin Academy, dressed in a turquoise top and makeup, she first requests a do-over on her photo. Then, just like the other clients, she puts on the yellow “death” robe, frets briefly about her claustrophobia, and slips into the coffin.

For five minutes, candles flicker and funeral music plays. Then the staff pries open the lid.

“I think at first the feeling was total panic,” says Ward. “Then gradually I started to relax a little bit; I even felt as if I was ready to nod off at the end.”

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