Girls who cope with the lifeless: Extra undertakers in South Korea than taboo fade

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© Reuters. Park Se-jung, who heads the funeral director at Eulji University, reacts after taking a class in Seongnam

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By Sangmi Cha and Hyun Young Yi

SEOUL (Reuters) – Growing numbers of South Korean women are training to be undertakers, an area they have long been excluded from given changing attitudes about gender roles and an increasing preference for women’s bodies to be treated by women.

With the recent deaths of female celebrities and celebrity figures, and increasing scrutiny of sex crimes against women, gender sensitivity is transforming the way families of the deceased say goodbye to their grandmothers, mothers, and daughters.

“I felt uncomfortable when my classmates of the opposite sex touched my body even when I was fully dressed,” said Park Se-jung, 19, who is in her sophomore year as a funeral director. “I would certainly not want them to touch my naked body, wash and dress my body even if I were dead. I am determined that I should be the one to give these women a proper goodbye.”

The trend is towards increasing demands for sexual violence against women, including a variety of hidden camera crimes, “revenge porn” and online networks in which women and girls have been blackmailed into sharing sexual and sometimes violent images of themselves .

In the early 2000s, about a third of undertaker students in the country were women, but today they make up around 60% of the class, said Lee Jong-woo, professor of embalming at Eulji University in Seongnam, near Seoul.

“With Confucian ideology, death was historically taboo in South Korea and had a negative notion of whether women could handle such work, but perceptions have changed,” Lee said.

YOUNG DEATHS

Funeral directors say they have received more inquiries about undertakers.

“Most young deaths are suicides, and the families of the bereaved, especially if it is suicide and a woman, are more comfortable when we deal with the body,” said Park Bo-ram, a seven-year-old funeral director.

“I remember one teenage student, an only child … had committed suicide,” said Park. “While washing and dressing her body, I saw many signs of self-harm on her thigh, but none of her family members knew.”

Park recalls that even amid the sadness, the girl’s parents were very grateful that an undertaker had handled their daughter’s body.

South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest in developed countries: 24.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019, compared to an OECD average of 11.3. That year it was the leading cause of death among teenagers and people in their twenties and thirties.

More than 4,000 women committed suicide in 2019, including young K-pop artists Koo Hara and Sulli.

In 2016, a quarter of the country’s 6,200 funeral directors were women, and with more than 130,000 girls and women dying each year, inquiries for funeral directors are expected to continue to rise, according to the Korea Employment Information Service.

Still, some resistance against women in the funeral business remains.

Shin Hwa-jin, 21, who plans to work at a funeral home after graduation, said she was shocked to hear an undertaker share a conversation with her mother-in-law.

“Her mother-in-law asked her, ‘How dare you cook my meals with your hands touching a corpse?'” She said.

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